A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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A reader called recently to inquire about buying a ten-year subscription. “What happens,” he wanted to know, “if The Sun doesn’t last ten more years?”
I told him I was determined to keep The Sun alive, but I couldn’t guarantee its survival any more than my own. If starting the magazine seventeen years ago was a gamble, so is planning next month’s issue, so is walking outside and getting in my car. We make plans as if the future belongs to us, but nothing belongs to us.
A week later, I got a note from him. “Life is short,” he wrote. “Love is long. I trust The Sun to keep on burning.” His ten-year subscription was enclosed.
When I peddled the first copies of The Sun on the street, I was gratified anyone would take a chance on this odd little journal. I still am. I’m thankful for devoted readers who renew year after year; for the amazing generosity that sustains The Sun; for issues that come together at the last minute, checks that arrive a minute after that.
James Baldwin once wrote that if you were born in Chicago, and have never had the remotest interest in Hong Kong, yet fall in love with someone who lives in Hong Kong, then Hong Kong will immediately cease to be just a name. You will discover a great deal about shipping routes and airline schedules, “and you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there.”
Before starting the magazine, I never had the remotest interest in postal rates, in paper costs, in direct-mail marketing. I never knew that for every thousand brochures we mailed, perhaps fifteen or twenty new readers sign up. But the merest sliver of a number — the difference between fifteen and twenty subscriptions, between 1.5 and 2 percent — means paying or not paying the bills. So I’ve learned to honor numbers without being seduced by them — just as, years ago, I learned to stay up all night collating and stapling and trimming every issue. Confronting my prejudices — about “menial” tasks, about percentages, about the endless details that lurk, impishly, behind every big idea — is as important as selecting what goes into the magazine.
For many years I was afraid of success, believing it would compromise The Sun’s integrity. As our readership has grown, I’ve realized my fears were unwarranted. Having more readers allows us to work in less crowded surroundings, pay contributors, pay ourselves. But the magazine’s widening recognition hasn’t diminished my ardor for improving each issue. Last year, I dropped all advertising so The Sun could make an even bolder statement — not against advertising, but for something basic and enduring, uninterrupted by invitations to buy something, to improve ourselves.
I want The Sun to continue growing, but I’m concerned, too, with a different kind of growth — toward a deeper and more subtle awareness, a greater compassion for the problems we share. Certainly, this means avoiding the kind of marketing gimmicks which would trivialize our best intentions. For example, amidst the hue and cry over “junk mail,” do we want to continue direct-mail marketing? Obviously, this isn’t an effective use of natural resources, but it’s the most effective way to find new readers. Is it ethical to use direct mail for politically correct causes but not to sell credit cards and steak knives? By printing our brochures on recycled paper have we addressed, or merely sidestepped, the dilemma? How important is a growing readership anyway? What time is it in Hong Kong?
When your work speaks for itself, someone once said, don’t interrupt. I try to abide by that dictum — yet, for me, these questions are no less real than the magazine that arrives in your mailbox each month. Our challenge is to honor the questions without always being able to answer them. Like other small, nonprofit organizations trying to bring something valuable into the world, we learn to balance our vision with necessity (an imperfect balance always), but remain determined not to sacrifice means for ends. No longer a “little” magazine, The Sun still isn’t big enough to make it without its readers. We struggle to stand on our own even as I once again ask for your help.
Please consider becoming a Friend Of The Sun. Your yearly or quarterly tax-deductible pledge would mean a great deal to us. In the face of rising costs, it would help us keep The Sun burning, while I go on worrying about matters of conscience and fractions of a percent.