“Of making books there is no end.” When Ecclesiastes made that observation, some 2,300 years ago, bookmaking was barely beginning. Today, though space for thoughts about books is shrinking, more books are being made and bought than ever before. In 2005, 172,000 new titles were published in the United States, 206,000 in the United Kingdom.
No one can possibly keep up with all that, which is one reason that book reviews are necessary. If nothing else, they are consumer reports, providing us with information necessary for informed decisions about which books to buy and which to avoid. But book reviews can and should offer something more than plot summary and verdict. They form part of the conversation that constitutes a culture. When that conversation fixates on Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and is silent about William Gass and J. M. Coetzee, the culture is in crisis. In 1987, book pages resounded with varied responses to The Closing of the American Mind, but its author, Allan Bloom, seems vindicated when the death of Anna Nicole Smith receives more attention than the deaths of Kurt Vonnegut and Octavia Butler.
A couple of weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a newspaper with a large following and a rich tradition, announced it was reassigning its book editor, Teresa Weaver, and decreasing its commitment to books. This followed by a few days word that the Los Angeles Times, which published one of this country’s six remaining free-standing Sunday book supplements, was folding that supplement into a Saturday opinion section. The Chicago Tribune revealed that it would be moving book coverage from Sunday to Saturday, when circulation is lower. Other newspapers that have recently eliminated book editors, decreased space devoted to books, or substituted wire copy for locally commissioned pieces include the Dallas Morning News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Raleigh News & Observer. It is “the new book burning,” says Art Winslow, former literary editor of The Nation: “In the new book burning, we don’t burn books; we burn discussion of them instead.”
John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle and a Current contributor, has launched a campaign to restore Weaver’s job (a petition can be signed at http://www.petitiononline.com/atl2007/petition.html) and strengthen national book coverage. While it might seem self-serving for the NBCC (on whose board of directors I served) to champion space for critics’ work, the dwindling of book pages affects us all. Rick Moody, victim of a notoriously vicious review (Dale Peck began a discussion of his novel The Black Veil by asserting: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation”), nevertheless argues that book reviews are essential to the nation’s intellectual vitality: “Book culture drives American culture. The ideas and innovation in American books trickle down from there into the media as a whole, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. To avoid giving books their due attention is to miss out on this engine of American culture, the furnace in which originality often finds its origin.”
The late Ted Warmbold, editor of the late San Antonio Light, once told me that “What sells newspapers are comics, coupons, and contests.” Warmbold was prudent enough to provide those 3 c’s and wise enough to commission coverage of modern dance, Salvadoran politics, and the cracking of the genome code. Like free and fair elections, American newspapers are a noble experiment in democracy, and it is not a coincidence that both are declining simultaneously. The great American newspaper was a print bazaar, offering something for every reader. There is no shortage of scholarly journals in which specialists review books by other specialists for the eyes of specialists. But newspapers are a public forum, and a community’s sentient life is smothered when serious thoughts are banished from the town square.
Newspaper circulation is plummeting, but surely the way to retain and engage readers is not by slighting their interest in reading books. Though it is true that some discussion has migrated to the internet, few bloggers provide the sustained, reflective analysis of printed texts traditionally found in print. Guided only by the bestseller lists (a self-perpetuating loop in which books are bought only because those books have been bought), a reader might have no idea that we are living in a golden age of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Pyrite soon displaces gold when no one cares to note the difference. Instead of a robust marketplace of ideas, American newspapers are becoming merely a marketplace.