Like most Americans, I have constructed my personality and lifestyle almost entirely by consulting magazines. I have purchased the “10 Stocks You Need to Own Today!” and long ago mastered the “7 Ways to Drive a Woman Wild!” I have also benefited from such superb articles as “Six Weeks to Tighter Abs!” and “Five Can’t-Miss Techniques for Lowering Blood Pressure!” Needless to say, I have also sampled several of the “10 Stay-Cations That Won’t Bust Your Family Budget!” Without these helpful articles, I would not be able to function.
Lately, however, I have noticed that magazines are suffering from an odd strain of numerological serendipity, with preposterously large and increasingly weird numbers turning up on the covers. “131 Great Recipes” is the come-on plastered across the cover of Food Network. “57 Best Beers” is what Maxim pushed in February. “25 Fun Ways to Go Nude (Without Freezing Your Butt Off)” teases Cosmopolitan.
Wait a minute! Don’t I do that every morning when I take a nice hot shower? For this I need Cosmo?
These are not isolated examples. “141 Super-Fun Recipes and Simple Ideas” is the headline beckoning from the cover of Cuisine Tonight: Quick and Easy Menus. “30 Spring Essentials to Revive Your Skin, Hair and Wardrobe” promises Woman’s Day. Slightly upping the ante, ReadyMade offers “35 Projects to Make Every Day An Adventure.” Getting completely out of control is Glamour, whose cover pitches “700 Instant Outfits and Ideas.”
These numbers worry me. They suggest that editors have forgotten the virtues of simplicity, that they have succumbed to some madcap Obama-era penchant for huge, unwieldy figures. Why, on earth, would anyone want to learn “65 Ways to Relieve Stress”? Wouldn’t it be less stressful to simply cancel your subscription to such an indecisive, undiscriminating magazine? Moreover, the numbers are meaningless: Numbers like 65 and 35 and 700 are too big and clumsy to be of much help to readers, and the number 14—as in “14 Cards, Treats and Surprises” (Disney’s FamilyFun)—is just plain stupid. Sixty-five and 35 and 14 and 700 are not cardinal numbers. They are not ordinal numbers. They are not sexy numbers. Like 173 and 4,123,076, they lack the archetypal, evocative power of 1, 3, 5, 7, and 10. They also lack the cultural resonance associated with 666 or 1776. There are not 35 Deadly Sins. There are not 65 Commandments. It’s The Magnificent Seven, not The Magnificent 57. The magnificent 57 is the 57 flavors of Heinz.
Is this proliferation of cryptic numbers something to be concerned about? If you, like me, are completely dependent upon the wisdom supplied by magazines to make your life work, the answer is yes. When I see an article about seven ways to lower your blood pressure, or five things every parent should know about teen drinking, I feel a sense of relief because I am dealing with plausible, realistic numbers that enable me to tackle manageable problems and craft realistic goals. Larger numbers only lead to heartbreak. I am willing to try seven things to lower my blood pressure; I am not willing to try 35. I think that there probably are five things every parent should know about teen drinking, but I seriously doubt that there are 131. If men needed to master 35 techniques to drive women wild, women would never be driven wild. Most men have trouble mastering one.
In reading these articles, I get the sense that the numbers are pulled out of thin air by editors who just don’t care. Why would you propose 141 Super-Fun Recipes and Simple Ideas, and not 142? What—did you run out of recipes? Worse, the ideas on these lists increasingly seem like a bit of a stretch: In its March issue, Parents enumerates “25 Manners Every Kid Should Know.” One is, “Don’t call people mean names.” Another is, “As you walk through a door, look to see if you can hold it open for someone else.” I don’t think the person who compiled this list has any kids. If you were making a list of manners every kid should know, and were designing it for real parents, you’d start with things such as “Don’t drool on strangers” and “Stop hiding Grandma’s walker” and work your way up.
Cosmo’s “25 Fun Ways to Go Nude (Without Freezing Your Butt Off)” has a similarly phoned-in, unscientific quality. Suggestion number nine is, “Snuggle up in a sleeping bag and watch summer movies.” No, you snuggle up in a sleeping bag and watch some summer movies. I’m going to prepare 141 fun recipes nude.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.