There have been some big changes recently in a familiar ol publishing institution. It had gotten stodgy, predictable, out of touch. The writing was something out of the 1930s, featuring an offhand style that bordered on precious; it evoked images of summers in Maine and fall afternoons at an Ivy League football game. Readers were limited to a select few: primarily smug, East Coast liberals, plus some folks who were downright eccentric. The publication was like none other in this country, and its readers certainly weren't like the rest of us.
Not any more. The thing has been revamped to a staggering degree, in a blatant, shameless attempt to enter the '90s and reach out to a wider audience. I dare say that nobody who read this publication last year would recognize it as . . .
What's that -- The New Yorker, you say? Oh, that! Yeah, I did see the last issue, with the cover with the punk rocker perched happily in the back of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, the driver looking off glumly. No question, as anticipated, that under new editor Tina Brown, The New Yorker has got a different look -- color ads and shorter headlines and snappier prose. And frankly, the magazine could have used a bit of an overhaul. Four-part articles on pork bellies and those cute-as-a-button "A friend writes" tidbits in Talk of the Town were skipped over, I suspect, by 90 percent of the magazine's subscribers.
But I was thinking of something much more important. For the past few weeks, I have been lamenting the demise of the L. L. Bean catalog.
Before this fall, curling up with the newest L. L. Bean catalog was one of the most pleasant occasions to shut off the world for an hour or so. You'd come home from work and spot the catalog in the day's mail. There was always a blissfully transcendent image on the cover: folks sailing, or hiking through the hills of what presumably was Vermont, or gathering with friends on a deserted beach for one last, end-of-the-summer clambake.
Inside, this delicious fantasy was perpetuated with some of the most peculiar prose imaginable: plain-spoken descriptions of sensible outdoor wear, often accompanied by helpful pointers as to the use of said items. Thus, for instance, say, the famous L. L. Bean warm-up jacket, we'd get something like this: "designed to wear from fall right through spring thaw." Then the write-up would go on in particularly vivid terms: "We wear this jacket whether we're picking blueberries on a cool fall day, or hiking a wind-swept path along Maine's rocky coast, or gathering wood for that first fire of the season in the old family cabin."
The models were pictured doing New England Things -- climbing mountains or hanging out around the cabin or, of course, cutting a few cords of firewood for the cold winter ahead. And they really didn't even look like models. Try as they might to look preppy, they still came off as gullible, not-quite-with-it pretenders. They had none of the smirky self-confidence of real preppies; rather, they appeared to be Bean personnel pulled from the stockroom and placed in front of the camera.
Cornball? Absolutely. But think of it this way: You work all day at a desk in the big city, slug it out with thousands of other urban dwellers on the interstate and the Beltway, and come home to a little place in some faceless suburb. How much closer could one get to becoming Eliot's "hollow man"?
But a few pages into the Bean catalog and you were energized, spiritually reborn. Looking at the famed chamois shirt (created by L. L. himself in 1927), or the hiking boots, or such arcane selections as Bean's Oak Log Holder and Tote, you were transported to a simpler time and place. You weren't a drudge or a suburban nerd, you were a Thoreau-in-waiting. The air grew cool and crisp and smelled of pine. Images of long walks in the New England woods, followed by drinking mulled cider by the stone hearth and basking in the roaring fire, were indelibly etched in the mind.
I can't say that's the case now. After looking at six of the fall and winter Bean catalogs that have hit my doorstep in recent weeks, I'm heartsick. L. L. Bean has left the back country and set up shop at the mall.
For starters, the models are obviously of a higher caliber -- more attractive and given to striking the standard self-assured poses you see in other catalogs. And that's a problem. Yes, they're decked out in their Wide-Wale Corduroys and Weekend Oxford Cloth Shirt and "Ship to Shore" casual shoes, but they've got their arms crossed and are sporting that inane half-smile-half-laugh models feel they must practice. Worse, they're seldom doing anything outdoorsy, like chopping wood or clearing brush or hiking to pick up some lobsters at the harbor. These folks aren't outdoorsmen, they're lounge lizards.
As for the ad copy, it's become both bland and boastful, if that's possible. Gone are those evocative descriptions of products, the "we wear this while hunting for antiques in a rural Vermont town or giving the dogs a brisk run at the shore." Now it's back to matter-of-fact detail in the copy, with one hideous addition: huge headlines that amount to just bragging. Take this on the chamois shirt, from page 18 of the 1992 fall catalog: "5 Reasons the Original Is Still the Best -- Since 1927." L. L. Bean always used to tout its products, but its manner was proud but quiet. Now the declarations are in neon.
Clearly, some idiot at Bean felt the catalogs needed to become more "user-friendly." Why else would catalogs now run testimonials from customers, such as this love note from Donna Weaver of Clinton, Ill: "I love the Polartec Plus Jacket. It's great for me because I throw it on, it's a hop and skip to my van." Even the formerly sacred hunting catalogs aren't immune. The fall one I got last month featured a customer's poem lauding the L. L. Bean hunting boots. They're great boots, certainly, but a poem? What's next -- 900 numbers so we can call our favorite models? Or karaoke contests in the local hunting lodge?
What the good people at L. L. Bean obviously didn't take into account was that they aren't selling just products -- some dopey items, but also many good and useful ones, I should say -- but also an illusion. I, for one, don't want to read another ho-hum catalog about this jacket or that sweater. I want to feel that I'm smack in the middle of the Maine woods, not Owings Mills Mall. Yo-yos modeling their clothing, dry-as-dust ad copy and braggadocio in large print won't make me want to put another log on the fire -- taken, of course, from Bean's Fireside Hearth Bucket.
Tim Warren is book editor of The Baltimore Sun.