By Anne Marie Ruff
Anne Marie Ruff has reported on AIDS research, drug development, biodiversity conservation, and agriculture from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. Her work has been broadcast by National Public Radio, Public Radio International, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and PBS TV. Her articles have appeared in Time, Christian Science Monitor, and Saveur among other publications. Through These Veins is Anne Marie’s first novel and she contributed a Books by the Bed to We Wanted to Be Writers earlier this year.
Please forgive me. I no longer read the newspaper everyday. And my two favorite publications are the Costco Connection and the Saudi Aramco World Magazine. In the interest of full disclosure, and to understand the magnitude of these transgressions (as much to myself as to anyone else) I must chronicle how far I have fallen from my lofty heights as a well-informed, well read, international journalist. And I must explain the appeal of my decidedly narrow corporate reading list.
A dozen years ago I fed myself a steady diet of news. I read the news wires when I worked at a radio and then a television station. As I moved on to freelancing in Bangkok, I followed the stories on NPR.org, I read the New York Times, the Bangkok Post, the International Herald Tribune, Time Asia, The Far Eastern Economic Review, I sat down to my meals with CNN International. When I moved to Abu Dhabi and worked as a media analyst for the national think tank, I consumed no fewer than ten English language newspapers a day. I engaged in erudite debates about the differences between the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Always abreast of the latest political developments in the U.S. and the way foreign policy influenced the different regions I came to call home, I have to admit, I despised my fellow Americans who were ignorant of current affairs beyond the latest sports and fashion news. How superior I was, with Tom Friedman’s latest quip at my disposal.
But in the last few years something has happened to me. I have grown jaded, fatigued, disillusioned with the incessant stream of news. I also had two children in quick succession, and left the journalism business for a profession that would allow me to make a living that could support those children. So I stopped reading the newspaper, I stopped consuming news. I stopped knowing what was happening in the world, or at least I stopped following what I fondly refer to as the “official rumors.” But the world still seems to roll on without me, continues to generate the events and opinions that are the news.
And I have to admit here, that abstaining from the news has improved my mental health, though not because of the bliss of ignorance—as I still read voraciously. But I find that I am interested in the longer story arc, the slower movements of society and culture that drive the daily churn of news like a massive gear in the machine of history. The names and numbers, the countries and conflicts in the news change almost as predictably as the Mad Libs game I used to play as a child.
So here is where the Saudis and their petro-funded glossy corporate publication dazzle me. Some really high quality writers, academics, and journalists grace the pages of the free magazine. They chronicle weighty matters like the history of the pointed arch and how it changed the course of architecture, how Western scientists are conserving the world’s agricultural history by collecting rare wheat seeds in Tajikistan, how a mixture of dried thyme and sesame—known as za’atar—has become a fixture of Lebanese cuisine now beloved around the world. To balance the historical sweep, the magazine includes current cultural events. I am up on Islamic and Arabic art exhibits and happenings from Dubai to Denver, Sydney to Stockholm. But of course this is far from the front pages of newspapers.
The partner publication I read, the Costco Connection, I love for its quick, life affirming, practical stories. Yes, the flimsy monthly—chock-a-block with ads for products Costco sells—holds my attention from cover to cover. My favorite spread, the author interview and editor’s book are so optimistic; always chronicling the difficulties the authors overcame to get their books published. What author wouldn’t want millions of Costco members to see their name and read about their books here? From its pages I have learned simple things I can do to keep my mind agile, and perhaps stave off Alzheimers; I have been inspired to take up stair climbing in my office tower to improve my heart; I have come to know some amazing entrepreneurs with great businesses. None of these topics qualify as news, because they are generally devoid of bloody conflict, political sparring, or large sums of contested money. But I think, isn’t this the kind of reporting I want to consume? Are new ways of thinking or doing perhaps more valuable than news?
So I seek forgiveness, mostly from former colleagues who still work as journalists, producing stories I no longer read, but also from friends and family who discuss the happenings of the day while I sit mutely. But to the writers who have discovered that you can do good work while making the corporations pay (probably quite well) for your words, I appreciate your stories, your research, your effort. I hope you have figured out a way to weather the sea changes in the journalism business model, and if you are doing so as a way to pay for your book writing habit, I hope to read about your ultimate literary triumph on the pages of the Costco Connection—now wouldn’t that be news!
Have you ever had a similar conversion? What’s your secret reading vice?