The Battle of the Book

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POLITICS DECEMBER 10, 2007

The Battle of the Book

At last, American society is getting around to the real villain in American culture, the one whose deleterious influence has so far escaped the magical transformation that technology, and its religion of velocity, is visiting upon all of American life: the printed book. Damn the printed book! In many places, and for many reasons, one hears the cry. In some quarters, the enemies of the printed book pretend that they are merely trying to save the book from the print--"the last bastion of analog," as Jeff Bezos ominously told a reporter from Newsweek (prepare the gallows!); to save reading by digitalizing it. In other quarters--in our quarter, in American journalism--a new anxiety about profits has combined with an old philistinism to produce a kind of informal national purge of book reviewers and book reviewing. Even as government agencies are reporting that Americans are generally reading less, and reading scores in American schools are in sickening decline, and workplace managers are regularly startled by the levels of "reading comprehension" upon which they must rely, Americans are being instructed that they should prepare themselves, and gladly, to lose interest in the book, and even to watch it die.

No, the e-book is not the end of civilization. If readers kindle to the Kindle, splendid: Any reading is better than no reading. Nothing valuable was ever preserved solely on Luddite grounds. The screening of America will inevitably come to include our encounters with serious prose, or what is rather comically described in our culture of speed as "long form." (Meanwhile the Internet is re-educating the planet for a largely audio-visual life in short form, but that is another vexation.) And yet it is neither sentimentality nor snobbery to insist that what we mean by the experience of reading may be singularly indebted to the printed book, to its physicality and its temporality. The breathless, Bezos-loving man from Newsweek says that he is reading Boswell's Life of Johnson on his iPhone. No, he isn't. All reading is not the same. It takes more than the apparition of words to constitute a book and its inner forms. Bleak House is not e-mail (even if it once was serialized) and Atonement does not deliver information. "Search" is not the most exciting demand that one can make of a text. So let us see how many conversions to literacy's pleasures these gadgets make, and let us be grateful for them; but let us also recognize that we toy with the obsolescence of the book at our mental peril.

The scanting of the prestige of books by the print media is a different matter. It is a kind of betrayal from within. In recent years, in-house book reviewing has been eliminated, abridged, or downgraded by the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, The San Diego Union-Tribune--the list goes on. The same cannot be said about management's enthusiasm for, say, sports, or food. "Committing resources" is not least a philosophical exercise: A newspaper discloses its view of the world clearly by what it chooses to cover and not to cover, and with what degree of rigor and pride. When you deprive the coverage of books of adequate space and talent, you are declaring that books are not important, even if you and your wife belong to a book club and your Amazon account is a mile long.

Now, it is true that the state of book reviewing in most American newspapers is crushingly mediocre--but the coverage of all the others fields of American life in those same papers is also not consistently dazzling. If you have a bad book critic, get a good book critic. Stop slumming. A part of the problem, of course, is that many people believe that book reviewing is easy to do, that it is just an outburst of opinion or advice. How could it be otherwise, when the most influential view in American book life is Oprah Winfrey's (yes, her book club is a societal boon, but her taste for the soap-operatically uplifting is not), and everybody writes their own book reviews on Amazon and elsewhere? But book reviewing is not blogging, even if a lot of blogging is book reviewing. Not everybody who can boil an egg is a food critic and not everybody who can hit a softball is a sportswriter. There are, or there should be, intellectual qualifications for the task, because there are urgent things at stake--at least as long as the citizens of this country continue to agree that beliefs, and the methods by which they are formed, matter.

A book review may be many things. It may be only a tip, a consumer's guide to what might satisfy at the airport or the beach. But it may be much more. The intelligent discussion of a book has the power to change its reader's ideas about how he votes or who he loves--to furnish nothing less than a "criticism of life," in the old but still sterling Arnoldian phrase. In less than an hour--we are all of us, even us high-minded types, busy people--it can transform a person's thinking, and also redirect it by leading him to other books with other theories and other beauties. It can also, if it is lucidly thought and written, teach by example. And if the reader of a smart and learned book review finds himself in vehement disagreement with it, well, his little lesson has been even more rich. Book reviewing is a training for controversy, without which no open society and no open individual can flourish. (There was a time not so long ago when these elementary considerations of intellectual and cultural well-being were more obvious in the United States, as James Wolcott and Christopher Benfey show elsewhere in this issue.)

A newspaper--and a magazine: we ourselves have not been immune from these pressures--is a business, not a charity; and capitalists cannot be impugned for seeking profit. Yet there are properties that are not just properties, but also pillars of a culture and institutions of a society. To regard them simply as businesses is to misunderstand them. In the ownership of a newspaper, the hunger for gain must surely be diversified by a sensation of stewardship. There are many companies in America that are not implicated in the public values of American life, but media companies are not among them. That is the extra-economic burden that they bear, though in many cases they are plentifully compensated for these inconveniently lofty obligations. The responsible and lively and ambitious coverage of books may not be much of a revenue stream, but it is a formidable thought stream, and knowledge stream; and it should be an honor to preside over it. When a book review is done well, it transcends leisure. It inducts its reader into the enchanted circle of those who really live by their minds. It is a small but significant aid to genuine citizenship, to meaningful living.

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posted in: politics, newsweek, america, jeff bezos, oprah winfrey

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