By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith
“ The Point grew out of a frustration with most, for lack of a better term, public spaces of thoughtfulness.”
The biannual journal is the brainchild of three University of Chicago doctoral students—Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar, and Etay Zwick. At a time when most publications are struggling for readership, the editors have found a tremendous public appetite for their type of scholarly-lit magazine.
Think The New Yorker, with a more argumentative and philosophical bent, they say.
“How can ideas inform how we think and live our lives?” says Baskin, a 29-year-old native of Chicago.
The magazine’s distinctive approach mirrors the non-traditional academic pursuits of its three editors. Their academic work, like their publication, crosses disciplinary boundaries, incorporating a wide variety of topics and fields.
The students are all PhD candidates in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the University’s renowned interdisciplinary graduate program. The chance to devise fresh approaches to deep problems drew in Thakkar, a 27-year-old native of Manchester who had studied philosophy, politics, and economics at New College, Oxford.
“Here was a place where I could study whatever I wanted, at the highest level, with no pressure to discipline that study towards the task of becoming an academic specialist,” he says.
Similarly, Baskin, who studied English and history at Brown University, felt ambivalent about pursuing a traditional path in academia, and becoming too steeped in jargon and theory. After college, he worked as a fact-checker at The Atlantic Monthly and did freelance writing, before moving back to Chicago to pursue his doctorate.
Like their academic journeys, The Point finds meaning in diverse subjects, and manages to ask compelling questions, such as, “what kind of novels do we need now?” or “what is conservatism for?”
“The Point grew out of a frustration with most, for lack of a better term, public spaces of thoughtfulness,” says Zwick, 27, who was born in Israel and attended Deep Springs College, an all-male liberal arts school on a cattle ranch in California. “Academic journals have been caught in scholarly snares—esoteric debates, endless cycles of footnotes, and citations. Mainstream journalism has largely forsaken the ambition to speak with listening minds, instead speaking at almost hypnotized ones. The New York Times and CNN may keep us persistently informed, but in a way that often deafens us to important questions.”
Their second issue, winter 2010, includes essays about a gay pride march in Jerusalem; the novels of French novelist, poet, and provocateur Michel Houellebecq; and Prof. Martha Nussbaum’s review of the documentary film Examined Life.
They came up with the idea of the magazine in September 2008 and got under way after winning a $3,000 grant from the University’s Uncommon Fund.
They find contributors through email, word-of-mouth, and sometimes by luck—like the time Zwick ran into philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.
“I heard a familiar voice—a heavy Eastern European accent, thick lisp—speaking at a breakneck speed,” Zwick recalls of Zizek. “I only needed to hear him utter a single sentence, which was something like, ‘The greatest insult one could give me is to say that beneath my ideological rantings lies a compassionate liberal impulse,’ for me to know that Slavoj Zizek was standing right behind me.”
A few years earlier, Zwick had heard the former UChicago visiting professor speak at Oxford. Zwick approached him amid the Co-op’s new hardcovers and asked him to contribute to the magazine. Zizek went on to write an essay on liberalism for their first issue.
To date, The Point has 350 subscribers, at $18 a year. The magazine sells for $12 at bookstores worldwide, including Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Jerusalem. Their first two issues sold about 1,100 copies each. The next issue is out in late August.
So what’s with the title? In part it’s a nod to the Promontory Point, says Thakkar, a “place you go to get away from university life, but also—not coincidentally—a place where as a graduate student you find yourself reflecting on the way your life is going, as you look across Lake Michigan from the academic peninsula of Hyde Park to the skyscrapers of ‘the real world.’”
It’s also, Thakkar adds, a way “to suggest that to use academic learning to better understand ourselves and our world isn’t some kind of populist sideshow, but the whole point.”