I've just been reading books about Shakespeare in 1599 and Henry V at Agincourt written by scholars who have massaged the available documents (a lot in Henry's case, not so many reliable ones for Will) to reimagine their times. Then I came across the latest issue of US Weekly magazine, and I began to wonder how historians 400 years hence (if there are any left) would use this valuable source material.
If you conjured America in the first years of the 21st century from US, you'd have to conclude that we were a very visual society (292 pictures in 72 pages of text, or more than four per page) who didn't much like to read (the longest article is a little more than 800 words). The country is very young--the only people much over 30 in the issue are a bunch of geezers (Joe Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger, Donald Trump) in an article about men with the most children.
The young women are obsessed with their weight (four stories and 25 pictures are devoted to actresses who are thin or too thin), their clothes (48 fashion pictures) and their guys (45 pictures of couples). Married or not, they're preoccupied with children (23 pictures of stars with their kids and two pictures of star Tom Cruise's love, Katie Holmes, without the mysteriously unphotographed Suri Holmes-Cruise).
It's a very white society. Only 21 of the 292 pictures show a black (13), an Hispanic (6) or an Asian (2). The most popular woman in America is the anorexic Keira Knightly (8 shots), followed by the dipsomaniacal Lindsay Lohan (5) and the multi-cultural Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce Knowles (4 each). And a very straight one: There are no pictures of same-sex couples.
Okay, US is a celebrity magazine, a down-market People, whose focus is entertainment. But, like People, it is today's equivalent of the Life magazine of the '40s and '50s--a popular mirror of the society. Life took all the world and culture--high-brow, middle-and low--as its syllabus. It captured that world week after week with the great photographers of the time, among them, Steichen, Eisenstadt, Margaret Bourke-White and W. Eugene Smith, who produced iconic work still revered more than a half century later. Life's writers were as literary as James Agee ("A Death in the Family") and as frothy as William Brinkley ("Don't Go Near the Water"). They wrote some of the captions, too.
Like Life in its heyday, US is an enormous success, so much so that it has prompted a spate of even lower-rent competitors, all peddling the same inane mix of paparazzi pix and text-blocks. The historians of the 25th century will be hard pressed to evoke our society in the 21st century from the virtual files of US. Or maybe it won't be so hard after all.