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By the time I was five years old I had circumnavigated the globe twice, was the proud possessor of two dateline certificates (a certificate given by airlines when you cross the international dateline in the Pacific, not an obscenely early membership of a dating agency!), and I had lived in five different cities in two different countries. Small wonder then that I should become obsessed at an early age with the geography of our world. As a young child, tented under my bedclothes by night was – not a secret hoard for a midnight feast – but a much loved Children’s Encyclopedia of the world which I read by my ladybird torch. I would religiously memorise the capital cities of all the countries in Europe, moving on later to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Those late night surreptitious memory tests were the precursor to my fascination with other countries.
Today, aged 26, I have a geography degree, a light-up globe, numerous maps from my travels, the Times Atlas of the World (the one that’s so comprehensive it hurts your foot if you drop it on your pinkies)… and a back catalogue of National Geographics.
Originally I received a subscription to National Geographic as a Christmas Present, aged 17. Since then I have either renewed the subscription myself, or had it renewed for me as a gift. It is an on-off love affair, and at the moment, it is off, for reasons I shall try to describe.
National Geographic is a monthly publication, with a long and honourable tradition. Established in 1888 in Washington, USA, the original National Geographic Society was a group of individuals who shared a passion for our world. The first National Geographic Magazine – a dry, uninspiring periodical emerged in the same year. Many years later, the design of the magazine has changed beyond all recognition, but the principles and goal remain the same – to educate in geographical knowledge. Today, the National Geographic Society employs a vast spectrum of people to travel and often live amongst the people, animals, environment, or concept which its next article concerns, and to bring back photographs and writing to be published. The magazine has also spawned a TV channel and a website, www.nationalgeographic.com.
So what have you in the National Geographic? A slightly less than A4-sized, glossy magazine, with around 130 pages, and an instantly recognisable yellow-bordered cover. There are generally 6 or 7 articles to a magazine, listed on the spine and front cover. There are advertisements, but not very many – maybe 17 or 18 pages in all and confined to the front and back of the magazine, so there’s nothing to distract you from your reading once you get going. Articles vary – the standard is a 30 page article, probably 50:50 text and photos, but there are often photo articles with much less text and many more pictures, and there is also a lovely feature – ZipUSA which comes at the end of an issue and is a short 5 or 6 page exploration of life in one zip code in the USA. There are letters pages, other short features, and often, free maps and fact sheets associated with an article. If I wanted to, I could probably paper my room with the maps I’ve received from National Geographic. Oh, I forgot, I do want to (just waiting for a house…)
The range of topics tackled is, as you would expect from a geography magazine, wide-ranging to the extent that you sometimes question to what degree that it can be considered geography. Take a randomly selected edition from my back catalogue: August 2002. We have articles on Proboscis monkeys, Russian firefighters, and the seafood of South Africa amongst others. One article I remember was devoted to skin: its vulnerability, its variance throughout the world. Another article concerned colour – the spectrum of shades that make up our vision
I remember that my last boss used to read and revel in the diversity of “The Economist” and once commented to me “Where else would see an article about the Gypsies of Romania?” “National Geographic!” I promptly retorted, since at the time National Geographic was running an article on that very issue.
National Geographic is famous for its photography, particularly its wildlife photography. But it is often a surprise to open an edition and find a range of photographs that are not picture postcard quality. The photographers take pride in capturing emotions, scenes and events that often challenge conventional wisdom and which frequently make difficult viewing. An article on children’s deformities around a polluting Russian factory had photographs which were hard to stomach. On the other hand, the photographers are adept at finding beauty where you would little have imagined it: a lizard’s eye, a petri dish of bacteria, a pile of radioactive waste containers. The photographs in the magazine simply cannot be faulted. By keeping classic portraits of mountains reflected in lakes, savannah sunsets and whale tail flukes as the exception, not the rule, the photographs allow exploration of the less photogenic but more informative issues at stake.
The articles are sensitive, probing accounts of worlds often unknown, though familiar. Some authors may write about their own personal quest: one man’s was to traverse the “dark heart of Congo”. Others may have the more straightforward task of investigating a city or region. The fictional assignment to photograph the Bridges of Madison County celebrated in the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood is typical of a locally-focused feature the National Geographic might run. Occasionally, well known authors will contribute – Bill Bryson wrote about his travels in Australia associated with the release of his book “Down Under”. However, this article, like so many others was a disappointment.
I think there is a certain type of writing which is a prerequisite for the National Geographic. Knowing Bill Bryson’s style, I was expecting acerbic wit and sharp commentary – but I got another in-depth and probing account of a lifestyle and country. It seems that this is the formula to which writers must adhere. This makes sense, since the formula obviously pleases its readership, but that formula is only suitable for a limited number of people, and at present, that limited number does not include me.
Articles are detailed and excellent, but just too dry and wordy for my continued liking. Each month, one article would catch my eye, and I would read that, but the others, though potentially fascinating, just contained too much dense text for reading them to be an appealing prospect. I just couldn’t seem to drum up the enthusiasm to start reading, much less to finish a whole article. Month after month I would read only about 30% of the magazine, which makes the cover price of £3.60 seem like money down the drain. The yearly subscription, currently £21.75, is however much better value and might yet convince me to renew my subscription.
I do love reading the magaziner from time to time, but the amount of text and depth of investigation is such that I find the thought of reading it often too overwhelming. I suppose you could say that I simply don’t have time for it in my life. This is a shame, given the excellent writing quality. Another silly problem is that the feel of the magazine is of such quality (the paper even SMELLS of quality) that the magazine gives the perception of being more than your monthly glossy, and I can’t bear to throw back issues away: not good when you’re a hoarder!
On the whole then, I would recommend National Geographic if you have the time and inclination to read and absorb dense facts and subtle insights. If, like me, time is precious and reading to be reserved for something that really catches your eye and doesn’t require constant concentration, perhaps it’s not for you. I would recommend buying the magazine if a particular article appeals to you, but maybe not getting a subscription. Unfortunately, the subscription is really good value compared with monthly purchase, so it’s a tricky choice. Try out National Geographic. You might just like it, and I’ll bet you’ll love the photos even if you don’t read the text. Check out www.nationalgeographic.com, or if you have it, the national geographic channel, to get an idea what you’re missing.