Why Book Reviews Matter

The New Republic

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THE PLANK JANUARY 23, 2009

Why Book Reviews Matter

Rumors surfaced last Friday that Book World, the Washington Post's highly-respected weekly stand-alone on all things literary, might be closing. Politico's Michael Calderone quickly confirmed that, while no decision has been made, it's under high-level discussion as a cost-cutting measure. This would leave the New York Times' Book Review as the last stand-alone book section in American dailies.

Book World has been rudderless since editor Marie Arana tearfully departed a few week ago, and newly-appointed Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli has promised a "restructuring" of the paper (the Sunday Source section was an early casualty). Brauchli issued a non-denial denial to National Book Critics Circle's blog, insisting that the Post is "absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature," without specifying if that means keeping Book World or just running the occasional review in the Arts section. His refusal to defend Book World amidst the growing rumors couldn't speak more clearly. The NBCC, also unconvinced, has since launched a last-ditch petition to save Book World.

The New Republic addressed the alarming trend of newspapers cutting book reviews in a staff editorial back in December of 2007. With the possible impending demise of one the most prestigious--and one of the last--book review sections, its warnings seem as urgent as ever:

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.

...

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.

You can read the full editorial here.

--Max Fisher

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