“Electric Menorah” is a fascinating resource for anyone interested in history of the Bay Area, but it helps a lot to be familiar with Berkeley (and even then, it’s hard to follow without the benefit of Google and a map). “Electric Menorah” also does a lot of name dropping. Oddly, this doesn’t come across as pretentious so much as just confusing, because none of the largely forgotten bookstore owners’ names are familiar. Though the issue is less than 100 pages long, a diligent reader should be prepared to keep a running list of the people mentioned.

Still, the issue is entertaining and well structured, and Elliott is a likable narrator, low-key yet opinionated, determined to tell this story his way, no matter whom he might offend. When he describes Salman Rushdie’s visit to one Berkeley bookstore, Elliott says:

Ugh. Hear him speak and you’ll find out why he got what he deserved. The guy’s a total ass.

This quotation is not defended and is maybe not terribly useful, but this unprofessionalism does not undermine the issue. “Electric Menorah” is a personal history. If you think the winner of the Booker Prize and the author of The Satanic Verses is an ass, go ahead and say it; it’s your damn magazine. This is, perhaps, the entire point. Elliott not only wrote the entire issue of Cometbus, he apparently printed it, too, using a photocopier—as he has done for twenty-five years. The author’s irregular language is a specific choice. He is embracing unprofessionalism, as did the bookstores he loves (for all their flaws) on Telegraph Avenue . -Daniel Luzer


News Photographer, January 2009

Well, the photos are good. When a magazine is called News Photographer (and when that title doubles as its target reader demographic), they’d better be. The images that anchor News Photographer—of Barack Obama on the stump; of a bed-ridden mother in Malawi; of children crowded in a Philippine jail; of a California wildfire—are the point of the publication. And they’re peppered throughout News Photographer’s sixty-one pages, in full-page spreads and smaller versions, glossy and varied, occasionally jarring, almost always riveting.

Most magazines treat their art as an afterthought to their text—and given News Photographer’s (forgive the pun, but) focus, it could be excused for committing the reverse transgression: subverting its words to its images. It doesn’t, though. Here’s Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, writing a thoughtful essay about the paper’s dilemma about whether to publish a photo of the corpse of a dog that had been hit by a car. Here’s an exploration of the convergence of video and still photography. Here’s an analysis of the rewards and perils of photo freelancing for NGOs.

They’re compelling stories. They may not be written in lyrical prose, but what the articles here may lack in style, they make up for in substance.

Like most magazines, News Photographer features valleys along with its peaks. An editorial celebrating Pete Souza, Obama’s newly appointed White House photographer, offers no perspective from Souza himself, and thus ends up feeling cold and detached (and that’s even considering that it’s written for an audience whose profession often demands remaining detached from their subjects). Overall, though, elevation is the order of the day at News Photographer. Here’s another image-driven magazine that you really can, you know, read for the articles.

News Photographer is, for better or worse, a trade magazine, and, though it generally avoids both the jargon-happiness and the hyper-professional perspective that so often afflict members of that genre, it occasionally falls victim to another trade-mag tendency: a self-centeredness so tenacious that, were it not so clearly rooted in insecurity, would seem to border on narcissism. As Alyssa Quart noted in a CJR essay last year, photojournalism is as imperiled as its print counterpart, and, perhaps as a result, preemptive self-defensiveness—look at the work we do! amateurs could never do this!—permeates News Photographer’s articles and even its images. (“DOING QUALITY WORK,” reads the caption underlining a photo of AP photographer Evan Vucci, unsubtly.)

CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.