January 28, 2009

Writing about books

I love many things:  I love cinema and concerts and theater and recorded music and museums and photography and architecture and dance and worship and ideas and lectures and sports and even more.

But most of all, I love books.  I am happy that I know how to read.  I am happy to have contact with people and ideas that I would otherwise never encounter because of great gaps in time or space.  I enjoy “arguing” with Aristotle and having him be my teacher.

But books are suffering from a long slump.  The signs are all around us: publishers are laying off employees, sales are down, bookstores are closing . . . you can add to the list yourself.  (On the bright side, providers such as the Internet Archive, Google Books, Amazon Kindle, etc are making a wide variety of older books available, although in many cases, they are doing so with some indifference to quality, as my friend Paul Duguid has amply demonstrated in a spectacular essay.)

Here is one marker:  newspapers are writing less about books.  Motoko Rich reports that the Washington Post has just announced it is ending the publishing of its standalone “Book World” section, following in the footsteps of other major newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times.  It appears that the only major American newspapers that are still publishing separate book sections are the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.  The granddaddies of book review tabloids, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books, are not really comparable to what they were even a decade ago – certainly even more so from the time when they featured essays from the likes of T. S. Eliot and Virigina Woolf.  And TLS and NYRB are really aimed at a very narrow audience – quite different from the hypothetical “late-thirties-something woman, a lawyer or educator or businesswoman” who was “busy with work, and also with family matters” “but that doesn't mean that she isn't interested in . . . the Book Review. She has a lively mind, she's curious. She wants to know about the public debates that are taking place. It's simply that these public debates are not her primary concern and so you have to pull her in.”

It is a sad day that the great populist medium, newspapers, are passing on their responsibility to critically discuss instances of such a fundamental atom of cultural transmission as individual books. 

This only motivates me more to write about books.  Perhaps this blog, like most, will ultimately only have a few dozen readers (which is, to be sure, most likely several times what it has at the moment).  But if someone is one day encouraged to read one book on the basis of accidentally coming across this blog through a Web search or a random link – then it will have been worth the effort.

In the meanwhile, I have even less reason to read the Washington Post now – because in the end, what really matters is not the daily blur of news from government and industry, but the long lasting ideas of significance that fill our inner core.  And that is far more likely to appear in a book.

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