Phew! It took a month, but I've finally finished* the San Francisco Panorama. It feels weird to write about a newspaper issue, but this is a weird newspaper issue, so here we go!
I'd be very interested to hear about the reactions of people from outside the Bay Area who read this whole thing cover to cover. I absolutely loved it, in large part because of the great, illuminating light it shines on The City and on California. There are tons of articles, short and long, that address things with local character: a practicing witch, a visual history of Bay Area bands of the past half-century, construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and many more. I think these are all interesting in their own right, but they're certainly more powerful and relevant because they touch on me geographically. Would I care as much if these stories focused on New York City? Probably not.
Even if you do cut out all the local-themed stories, though, you still easily have at least 2/3 of the paper left, and that is wonderful as well. In keeping with my normal strategy for reading papers, I left the comics for last, and felt well rewarded. Some of them are short and clever, but most take advantage of the enormous canvas provided by the oversized broadsheet and tell huge stories. There's a lot of variety and creativity in how artists respond to this opportunity. One of the most compelling examples is in the center page, where the artist draws a sprawling comic about the entire life of a man: his childhood daydreaming about other planets, his awkward interaction with a childhood sweetheart, his disintigrating family life, his eventual marriage, birth of a daughter, and divorce (the latter taking place through a really interesting series of almost microscopic icons). Beyond its scope, what impresses most about this is its layout: unlike some others on the comic page, this is something that simply could not be read on a computer screen. The story turns from section to section, having no clear reading path, and requiring you to rotate the paper in order to follow the tale. It's quite remarkable. On the other hand, there are a couple of adventure serials, told in media res - we're getting a small middle chapter from a larger story that we'll never hear. One of these takes this enormous sheet of paper, and then devotes about a third of it to a single, powerful, exciting image of a large green man smashing through obstacles. It's the kind of arresting visual image that requires you to read the rest of the comic.
I'm not sure when I decided for sure that I would pick up a copy of Panorama, but it might have been when I learned that there would be a new George Saunders story in it. (Mild SPOILERS about that story lie ahead.) It was great. It reminds me a little of another story he wrote (I forget the title) about a young man who shot commercials; like that one, this is told by a first-person narrator who does not write English very well. This narrator has an even better excuse: he is a fox. The tale he tells is like a companion to Watership Down: a group of foxes live in edenic splendor, until encroaching development by humans takes away their habitat. This particular fox has learned some English, and developed a fawning adoration of the humans: they build such great stuff! They tell great stories! They have so much food! And then, his heart and yours are broken by a breathtakingly cruel action that leaves him disillusioned and confused. It ends with a moving, direct plea for people to be more kind - a common Saunders theme.
(End of SPOILERS.)
I ended up reading almost the entire paper at home - it's just way too large to read on the train during the commute. The exceptions are the magazine section and book section; fortunately, both are long enough to provide plenty to read. The magazine has some interesting long-form narrative pieces: a Pakistani playwright/lawyer tries to save a Hispanic family's home from foreclosure; a gay couple from San Francisco attends a NASCAR race in Michigan; an atheist and a Jew walk a Catholic pilgrimage across the length of Spain. The stories got more interesting the longer I read them. I had expected the NASCAR story to be about how the writer challenged peoples' stereotypes about what gay people enjoy. It ended up being the opposite: the cautious and worldly San Franciscans are surprised repeatedly by how warm and tolerant Midwesterners are towards "outsiders" like them. The pilgrimage story, which closes the magazine, seemed interminable at first, but that's kind of the point - the sheer length of the story conveys the sheer length of the journey, all its pain and monotony. Many interesting things happen, but the story resists the urge to offer epiphanies or pat summaries of what they learned on the way.
The advertisements in the paper also deserve special mention. There aren't that many - over a dozen, but compared to a typical paper, they're almost absent. They have a strong local flavor, which is awesome and a little perplexing. McSweeney's publishes to a national audience, and I have to wonder how many people will order season tickets from the San Francisco Symphony or buy a Chrome bag. Regardless, the ads work - again, the size is important, and they are cleanly designed for maximum impact.
* The one thing I haven't finished yet is the games page on the back of the arts section. I've READ it all, but I've only filled in about half of the crosswords, and maybe a fifth of the color box puzzle.
I even found myself enjoying the sports section. Again, the local flavor helped here - I don't follow sports too closely, but I'm much more interested in, say, the 49ers and the Raiders than in the Giants and the Jets. The sports stuff tends to be more focused on profiles than on box scores, and tells some really interesting personal stories. My favorite was probably about Jed York, at least in part because of the political issues it touches on as he considers moving the 49ers from The City to Santa Clara.
Oh, and there's the much-talked-about long piece from Stephen King on the World Series. Again, it is great, much more so from the writing than from the information itself. He tells the story of the Series as an allegory centered on a place called Bloat Stadium, a Bunyan-esque fable about greed and debauchery. My favorite bit is when he muses on the presence of fans who hold up signs reading "John 3:16", and suggests that it would be more appropriate to use another verse instead, one about the Whore of Babylon. Excellent stuff.
I could go on and on... Panorama is sprawling, filled with literally dozens of wonderful things, but hopefully this gives a taste. It sounds like I'm not the only one who's digging it; I just recently learned that the Panorama actually sold out 90 minutes after going on sale, meaning I was very lucky to get it when I did! They ended up selling the issues that they had earmarked for subscribers, and sold out of those, too. They're now in reprints. This is very unusual for McSweeney's, which usually has copies of their quarterly available for years after going on sale; it's doubly unusual for a newspaper with stories about what happened in San Francisco during early December 2009. Hopefully this will serve as an encouragement to the publishing industry as a whole, and in particular give newspapers some fresh ideas about how to revitalize their business.