Moving from one house to another comes with many challenges and anxieties, but one I had not expected was the Yellow Wall.
This was the wall of bookcases in my basement. They were filled with several hundred National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s.
Every American knows it is a sin to throw away a National Geographic. If you are a journalist who comes from a family of librarians, it is a mortal sin.
But here’s the thing: I do not have a good place to put them in my new house. I rarely go back and read them. And, back at the dawn of the digital age, I bought a set of CD-ROMs containing every issue of National Geographic from 1888 to 1995, plus a two-volume index. This digital archive is no bigger than a bread box.
I have no good reason for keeping almost six decades worth of National Geographic magazines in all of their heavy-coated paper, perfect bound bulk. So why do I hesitate to pitch them? It’s complicated.
Like many boys, I first became aware of National Geographic in elementary school. A friend discovered that the magazine contained photographs of women wearing much less clothing than we were accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t pornography; it was anthropology.
But I didn’t fully appreciate National Geographic until a friend of my father gave me a box of them. He was moving and, well, just couldn’t pitch them. During the many hours I spent thumbing through those magazines, looking for anthropology, I found so much more.
Before cable TV and the Internet, National Geographic literally opened the world to a young mind. Each magazine was filled with fascinating reports about history, science and culture. As an adult, I have traveled to many exotic places that I first saw in the pages of National Geographic.
One well-thumbed issue was August 1965. It included a tribute to Sir Winston Churchill and coverage of his elaborate funeral. There also was some cutting-edge technology: a thin, plastic phonograph record I could tear out of the magazine and put on my record player to hear excerpts of Churchill’s speeches. I wore it out.
That issue also contained a classic example of National Geographic photojournalism: William Albert Allard’s picture essay about Pennsylvania’s “Amish Folk.” It is one reason I have always been awed by the power of documentary photography.
National Geographic has always set a standard for journalistic excellence, despite some now-laughable culture and class bias. The magazine has suffered from cost-cutting in recent years, as most publications have, but it continues to do work that no other magazine does.
National Geographic has a longer shelf life than most magazines; many of its stories are timeless. Still, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, even the best print journalism becomes clutter.
Back issues of the magazine have little value as collectibles, probably because nobody ever throws them away. Wherever you find a flea market, downscale antique shop, used bookstore or charity book sale, you will find stacks of National Geographics.
Some people leave their old copies in barber shops and doctors’ offices. Others give them to schools so children too young to know any better can cut them up for classroom projects. The rest of us just keep accumulating them, despite our best intentions. We cancel our subscription, then buy a box of old copies at a neighbor’s estate sale.
One of these days, I fully expect to see this newspaper headline: “Couple killed in bedroom ceiling collapse; police blame National Geographics in attic.”
In the weeks before we moved, I agonized over the Yellow Wall. Becky would ask for a logical reason why we should keep so many old magazines. I had none.
Faced with a decision, I ducked it. I filled six big boxes with enough National Geographics to make my muscular movers groan. They stacked those boxes upstairs, where they have sat for a month and a half.
But now is the time to act. I will save the Churchill issue and a few others, but the rest of my National Geographics must go. Here is my plan: I will give them away to the reader who emails me by April 1 with the best reason why he or she wants them.
The recipient just can’t blame me the next time he or she moves.