Why is it we can read but we’re not supposed to talk about it…?

spongebobreads.jpg My fellow Scrogue Denny Wilkins (Dr. Denny to you) passed along a great essay by Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review on the gradual disappearance of book reviews and book news coverage from newspapers that appears in the latest issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman’s essay hits on some points near and dear to my heart as a writer, professor, and pedantic bastard (as a friend once addressed me in a high school yearbook salutation) so I figured you (and I address this affectionately, as my high school friend addressed me) pedantic bastards who read S&R might find those points of interest, too.

Wasserman’s thesis is that the decline of book reviewing and consideration, particularly thoughtful, long form reviewing of books that are not by people named Steele, Grisham, Sparks, and others of their ilk has always been a weakness of newspapers. However, Wasserman notes, with a mixture of concern, chagrin, and good old literati disappointment, that newspapers have in the last couple of decades accelerated their dismissal of book discussion from their pages. While he wishes the reasons were different, Wasserman’s too honest a mind to admit anything but the truth of the matter:

At a time when newspaper owners feel themselves and the institutions over which they preside to be under siege from newer technologies and the relentless Wall Street pressure to pump profits at ever-higher margins, book coverage is among the first beats to be scaled back or phased out. Today, such coverage is thought by many newspaper managers to be inessential and, worse, a money loser. (italics mine)

So as always, it comes down to dollars. Book readers aren’t a large enough constituency for newspapers to cater to them as they would to sports fans or readers who want to read stories about shoe collectors. One is reminded of the exchange between “Mother” and “The Old Man” in Jean Shepherd’s brilliant description of American life and culture, A Christmas Story:

The Old Man: … Hey’d you read about this clodhopper down in Muncie who swallowed a yo yo?

Mother: That’s not news….

The Old Man: Why, sure it is. That’s the kind of stuff people want to read, not that politics slop….

This is the mentality that American newspaper cater to. In a culture that is dominated by image rather than accomplishment, by video games instead of reading, by text messaging instead of meaningful discussion, is it any wonder that newspapers, who are dominated by USA Today rather than The New York Times, should choose to retreat from the very thing that makes them valuable to us in the first place – the printed word?

The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: the first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.

There’s a correlative problem – a darker, more insidious one – that underlies these “ditch the culture of books” decisions by newspapers. Wasserman points us at it by noting the words of Carlin Romano, book critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of American newspapers in the 1990s is their hostility to reading in all forms.

For many thoughtful and serious readers who’ve seen their local newspapers offer less and less news and more and more advertising, maybe the disappearance of book reviews may seem like yet another brick in the wall between the culture of American journalism and the culture of American letters. But Wasserman sees this as a problem of long standing:

The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections to turn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation’s newsrooms that is—and, alas, always was—an ineluctable fact of American news gathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barely disguised contempt for the bookish.

Reading books and writing about what’s in them, in short, is not news. And that which is not news doesn’t belong in newspapers. But Wasserman points out, rightly, that newspapers have a responsibility to offer book news and reviews (and other arts coverage) because of their responsibility to American democracy. Such services have, Wasserman argues:

…profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed. The moral and cultural imperative is plain….

Wasserman concludes by noting the importance of books and their creators to making our country stronger:

It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring…. Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs.

We at Scholars and Rogues agree fervently with Wasserman on this last point. In fact, we offer our readers discussions and reviews of literature such as Scroguely Works and Verse Day. And we have on our writing staff a working poet, a novelist, and a fiction writer.

And we’d like to hear from you – if you’re a reader, send us a comment on how you find books, what kind of works attract you, anything else you deem relevant to such matters. If you’re a writer, comment about how you stay motivated in a culture that seems to do all it can to render you irrelevant. Of course, we love book recommendations, so be sure to offer those, too. And let us know if you’d like to address any other arts issues….

To paraphrase those poets of the 90’s, Salt ‘N Pepa, let’s talk about texts, baby….

9 replies »

  1. its all about money

    i dont read books, not even when it was required in school….well thats not true, thats a lie actually. i rarely read for fun, but only when my good friend from barnes and nobles tells me too

    ps – i read all day

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  3. Interesting post and links.

    Me the reader:
    Started finding books with help from our school librarian (age 8-12), then moved on to the village library and read the authors my mother or that librarian recommended (latter also being in jeopardy as governments are cutting library service budgets). Nowadays I pick up books either based on a book review or suggested read either through a Newspaper, Magazine (i.e. Economist), Radio or TV program or because it’s personally recommeded. Although book reviews might not be as widely spread anymore (mainly due to the fact that the public doesn’t read ‘good’ books anymore), I still seem to find what I am looking for.

    Me the writer:
    I feel that people who are seriously interested in reading and reading well will, like me, know the resources where they can find what they are looking for.

  4. Personally I would ignore almost anything The Denver Post put forward as a book review. Since they are picking books based on “broadest appeal” the odds are good that I will have no interest in a book they reviewed.

    There are so many excellent sources for news on new and good books online, that exceed what I could get from a newspaper. Websites devoted to bibliophiles, author & genre websites, and recommendations from online acquaintances. For example, I’m an active member of Motley Fool, which has multiple boards dedicated to non-financial topics including books, video games, science fiction, and movies. When they get into a long thread about “best under the radar sci-fi writers” and it goes for 7 pages, I’m sure to find a few new authors to audition.

  5. Three thoughts in response to your article, Jim:

    1. Thanks to word processing programs and instant publishing (posting on the Internet), I’m guessing that there are tons more writers proportionately than ever before. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that translates into reading books.

    2. Most young people are less word-oriented in the past. However, again non-empirically speaking, they seem to make up for it by the way they perceive visually.

    3. It’s tough to make a case for literacy, when it doesn’t usually result in making a lot of money, which is more important than it ever was.

    In fact, it’s almost disingenuous to urge young people to make reading paramount in their lives. Should they take it all the way and become literary people, they may not be in a position to properly support their future families.

  6. Without literacy a forward cultural thrust isn’t possible.
    Damn, Russ.
    It isn’t okay to think it’s okay. Instead of taking a stand for senselessness try running your posts by an editor.

  7. We have a working poet at S&R? Who?

    Oh – maybe you didn’t mean somebody who actually works AS a poet. What silliness that would be.


    In any case, I think this all relates to something that we were talking about at dinner the other night. My sister-in-law is a teacher, her husband is in school to become one, and so is his friend (who was over to dinner with us). As always, I wound up holding forth. A point I made then had to do with the essay I have before me right now, entitled “Verbicide” (from Conservation Biology, v13 no.4, August 1999, pp696-699). Quoting Spretnak, it notes that in the past 50 years “the working vocabulary of the average 14 year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words.”

    It’s been a decade since Spretnak was published, and based on my own experience I’d say we’re down to around 48 words at this point.

    I’m tempted to start quoting Dewey, but I think I’ll go watch TV instead.