Reading or Learning?

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"Men of Letters: The Decline of ‘Amateur Journalism’" by Benjamin Schwarz, in The Atlantic Monthly (July–Aug. 2002), 77 North Washington St., Boston, Mass. 02114.

In the United States, the phrase "literary journalism" seems almost a contradiction in terms, yet Britain can point to a long tradition in the field. Schwarz, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, explains that in the early 19th century, British literary journalism seized upon the book review as its primary medium. These reviews dominated the cultural scene, "largely defining the terms of debate on and discussion of political, religious, economic, scientific, historical, and biographical subjects as well as literature."

As Schwarz notes in this book review of his own—the book being Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement, by Derwent May—review-essays were strange creatures: "The book under review often served merely as a peg on which to hang a scintillating essay, and the reviewer was often far more intellectually distinguished than the book’s author." Leading periodicals such as The Edinburgh Review, The Fortnightly Review, The Spectator, and The Economist were filled almost entirely with review-essays.

Reviews served a crucial function, for readers often lacked the time for scholarship yet needed a way of staying informed. John Morely, editor of The Fortnightly Review, described the reviewer as a "writer by profession, who, without being an expert, will take trouble to work up his subject, to learn what is said and thought about it, to penetrate to the real points." The great 19th-century writer Walter Bagehot compared the review-essay to a sandwich for its ease of consumption and the satisfaction it provided. Reviews were in many ways an antidote to pedantry, and they were not simply watered-down academic pieces. Rather, they enabled a certain worldly engagement on the part of readers. The "true reader," as Virginia Woolf put it, was "a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study."

Founded during the last wave of literary journals, The Times Literary Supplement slowly grew to prominence in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, however, most British men and women of letters had taken up residence in academia. Paraphrasing Woolf, Schwarz writes that the TLS increasingly became the province of "those who loved learning rather than those who loved reading."

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