In a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, Joe Queenan notes a peculiar and, in his view, a troubling new trend in magazine journalism, or what’s left of it: the advent of bizarre numbers in headlines and in the articles they introduce. In the past, he writes, headlines such as “10 Stay-Cations That Won’t Bust Your Family Budget!” and “7 Ways to Drive A Woman Wild!” were staples. But lately, he writes, “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….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.
He concludes, “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?”