In the past month, several of the nation’s biggest book sections — in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta — have instituted major cutbacks or changes to their coverage. This shift in focus is part of a larger trend in newspapers — whose circulations are down, whose audiences are getting older — of moving more content online and shutting down coverage of whole areas entirely.
The Current spoke with Howard Zinn, bestselling author of A People’s History of the United States, a Boston University professor, and one of America’s most notable, anti-war historians, about American newspapers’ winnowing down of book reviews.
Speaking by phone from his home in Boston, Zinn reflected on these changes, and how they affect American cultural life and our democracy. Here’s what he had to say.
Is there any period in history when there has been such a reduction in the discussion of books in print?
Well, I don’t know of any comparable period of American history when there was such a drastic cutback in the attention paid to books, and I think this is the worst it has been. I think it’s part of a general tendency on the part of newspapers not to cut back only on reviews, but on foreign news reporting. I was just talking to a Boston Globe reporter who told me that the Globe has shut down its entire foreign news service. And this is true of a number of papers across the country. I think a lot of it has to do with television ... with more attention being paid to visual media — and it’s not a good thing at all.
If you talk to newspaper owners, some of them will say there is more talk about books on the internet, and that they just can’t compete with that.
Well, they have to hunt for it — newspaper editors are putting greater responsibility on the individual to find information which we normally would get in our daily newspaper. After all, there are still a lot of people who don’t have computers, and are totally dependent on newspapers, so for those people simply telling me to go and get information on the internet doesn’t help. So I think these cutbacks are unfortunately part of the dumbing down of the American public, which is supposed to be a highly educated public … and the cutback of book-review sections and book reviews makes things worse.
After all, democracy depends on information, it depends on the public being informed, and the inattention to books, the diminished attention to books, is important because books are probably the least censored part of our culture. That is, while television and radio have been more and more monopolized, and newspapers are more and more concentrated in fewer hands, I have found as a writer that there has been more freedom in book publishing than in any other aspect of American culture — this, in spite of the fact that publishing itself has been taken over by financial and industrial moguls, like my own publisher, HarperCollins, which was taken over by Rupert Murdoch. But I think it is still true that books are the freest area.
So when people ask me for sources of information, I tell them go to the library, go to the bookstore, because I think books are the last refuge from the lies and misinterpretations that are pushed down upon people.
If books are written about less and less, and not everyone has a connection to the internet how do people know a book exists? I tried to find a review of your latest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, and aside from excerpts on Alternet, I couldn’t find one.
No, you’re right. There have been reviews in very tiny publications, but no, no reviews in major newspapers.
Was it like that when you first began to publish?
Well it’s always been harder for unorthodox, or you could say dissident writers to get reviews. But my earlier books did get reviewed a lot more often, and in many more places than my present books. I’m thinking also of — and comparing reviews during the Vietnam War era and reviews during the Iraq War.
In 1967, I wrote a book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, and it was reviewed in many major newspapers … Just recently Anthony Arnove wrote Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, and so far as I can see it has received very few or no reviews in major newspapers. If you compare two books on similar situations, what has happened in 40 years — it’s disheartening.
So what should people do who care about this form of dialogue?
I wish I knew what the answer was to this question, because the only reply one can give in a situation like this is for people to seek out alternate sources of information, alternate newspapers, community newspapers, community radio, cable
But I also would suggest that people start campaigns to restore attention to book reviewing in those newspapers that have cut down on book reviewing. Presumably editors are somewhat sensitive to reader reactions. I think if readers didn’t simply accept these cuts passively, and they carried campaigns asking that newspapers restore the space and the attention to books, well, that would be one way to fight.
Actually, the National Book Critics Circle started a campaign just like that in Atlanta, where the book editor position was eliminated. With local readers and booksellers we petitioned the paper and met with the editor, Julia Wallace. We have a petition going that has over 5,000 signatures online and more at local bookstores.
Well, I think what you just described would be a valuable thing to do in newspapers all across the country.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle, a 700-member group of book reviewers. See the petition to save Atlanta’s book editor at Petitiononline.com/atl2007/petition.html and read stellar book reviews in the Current’s “Texas Books Issue,” May 9-15.