Penny Wise, Culturally Foolish

Penny Wise, Culturally Foolish

Book review sections almost universally are loss leaders, but without them, says one former editor, "the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs."

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The source: “Goodbye to All That” by Steve Wasserman, in Columbia Journalism Review, Sept.–Oct. ­2007.

Like members of a nearly extinct species, newspaper book review sections and features are dying at an accelerating rate, and the survivors are increasingly feeble. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Dallas Morning News, the North Carolina Re­search Triangle News and Obser­ver, The Orlando Sentinel, The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The San Diego ­Union-­Tribune, among others, have cut staff or coverage or pages. Several newspapers have grafted the stump of book coverage onto sections that list upcoming events for readers with interests as divergent as auto racing and celebrity ­cooking.

The sorry plight of book reviews is only a chapter in the larger story of cultural and technological change affecting the printed word. Newspapers are in crisis, trying to adapt to the new digital technologies sucking away advertising revenue and readers. The ­book­selling industry is roiling from consolidation and digitiz­ation. Most troubling, how­ever, writes Steve Wasserman, the former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, is the “sea change in the culture of literacy itself.” A speeding and visually dazzling world makes serious reading increas­ingly irrelevant. The habits of atten­tion indispensable for absorbing ­long-­form narrative and sus­tained argument have been ­eroded.

Newspapers have tried to adjust to the new taste for the short, “bright” item, and many book reviews consequently have become mere pabulum, almost deserving of their fate, Wasser­man writes. When Stendhal’s The Charter­house of Parma was newly and brilliantly translated several years ago, Wasserman commis­sioned a long review from Prince­ton’s Edmund White and splashed it prominently in the Sunday book section. His editor motioned him into his office the next morning. “Steve,” he said wearily, “Sten­dhal? Another dead, white, European male?”

Serious reading has always been a minority enterprise, but in 2004, for the first time, a majority of Americans said that they had not read a novel, play, or poem in the past year. That nevertheless leaves a lot of people. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2002 nearly 100 million people read literature of some ­type.

Even so, newspaper book re­view sections generally, perhaps universally, lose money. So if they don’t bring in profits, and are generally “shockingly mediocre,” ac­cording to Wasserman, why not consign them to a merciful death? He concludes that readers know in their bones something news­papers forget at their peril: “With­­out books, indeed, without the news of such ­books—­without ­literacy—­the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs.”

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