In 1850, in the first issue of Harper’s Magazine, the editors laid out their plan for a publication that “no one who has the slightest relish for miscellaneous reading, or the slightest desire to keep himself informed of the progress and results of the literary genius of his own age, would willingly be without.” This spring, we will relaunch the magazine with some design and editorial changes that will enliven but still honor that tradition. Most of these are top secret for now but, with my first issue as editor, I can announce a few exciting additions to our roster of staff writers. Starting in April, Walter Kirn will join Rebecca Solnit as an Easy Chair columnist. Throughout the coming year, we’ll have regular essays on film, television, music, and more from Rivka Galchen, A. S. Hamrah, and Emily Witt. And Christine Smallwood, who has been writing New Books every other month since 2014, will take over that column full time.
Our cover story for January is a deep investigation by Scott Sayare into jihadism and the French legal system. One response to attacks like the assault on the Bataclan in Paris or the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino is to simply lock up anyone who expresses radical religious views. The French have been trying that approach since 1996, using a broad antiterror law known as association de malfaiteurs terroriste, which allows prosecutors to “detect dangerous behavior ahead of time” and “neutralize people judicially.” That mission, it now seems clear, has been a failure. To report this story, Sayare interviewed Djamel Beghal, whom the Washington Post called “the charming and chilling mentor” of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Beghal was arrested in 2001 and eventually convicted under association de malfaiteurs terroriste; he remains in prison today. He has rarely spoken to the press, but he sent Sayare 226 pages of letters describing his life, his philosophy, and the network of jihadis he met in the French prison system. When Sayare began reporting this story, it was an open question whether France would see another massacre like the one that happened at Charlie Hebdo. Now, unfortunately, we know.
Events in France and closer to home might lead you to seek solace in the infinite, in the mysteries of our vast and expanding universe. For the lead essay in the new issue, Alan Lightman tackles perhaps the most fundamental question of all: What happened before the Big Bang? Lightman talks to physicists in the “high risk, high gain” field of quantum cosmology who are beginning to provide some answers. He considers the possibility that there were multiple big bangs, delves into the spooky phenomenon of quantum tunneling, and asks whether there is room for a divine creator in the most up-to-date theories about the origin of the universe.
Peter Rasmussen, an oncologist practicing in Salem, Oregon, spent twenty years helping terminally ill patients choose how they want to die. He became a prominent supporter of physician-assisted suicide; the original name of the case that preserved the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was Oregon and Rasmussen v. Ashcroft. In 2014, Rasmussen discovered that he had a form of brain cancer with a median survival rate of seven months. Following that diagnosis, Brooke Jarvis spent the spring and summer with Rasmussen as he considered the possibility of his own suicide and reflected on what makes a good life and a good death.
Fans of the Mountain Goats will cheer the appearance of a new contributor to Harper’s Magazine: John Darnielle, who traveled to Germany for us to report on a performance of John Cage’s ORGAN²/ASLSP that’s expected to last over 600 years. Darnielle was present for one of the only chord changes scheduled for this decade, an occasion for pilgrimages from Cage scholars and adventurous musicians alike.
Our New Books column is in many ways a celebration of variety; in the January issue, Christine Smallwood celebrates Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept, which she considers alongside books by Nicola Gardini and Jhumpa Lahiri. We also have a review by Emily Cooke of a new authorized-then-unauthorized biography of Ted Hughes (“The dogs in the street seem to have more ideas about me than I have,” Hughes once said) and a swim through several new works of animation from Japan by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi.
Also in this issue: Andrew Cockburn writes about our “special relationship” with Al Qaeda, our once and (perhaps) future ally; Art Spiegelman, a bona fide genius of comic art, discusses Art Young, a bona fide genius of political cartooning; Fredrik deBoer tells us about the relationship between Louis Farrakhan and Black Lives Matter; and Anne Carson describes what happens when a zombie meets a snake, in her first published short story.
In that inaugural issue of Harper’s from 1850, the editors didn’t just talk about literary genius; they also made a pitch. Subscriptions were $3 a year: a rate so low, and “a value so much beyond its price,” that they predicted the magazine would “make its way into the hands or the family circle of every intelligent citizen of the United States.” I’ll note here, without further comment, that $3 in 1850 is the equivalent of $85 today, and that our current subscription price is $45.99.