Literary Death Spiral? The Fading Book Section

Commentary

One of the sad, little sidebars to the sad, big saga of the waning of American newspapers is the disappearance of professional, edited book sections.

One of the last two major, stand-alone print book sections died this past Sunday, when The Washington Post published its last edition of Book World. The paper will still review books, but only The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle will continue to run a full mini-magazine devoted to books. It is a heavy symbolic blow to readers, writers and publishers. And it is an injury to our collective literacy and, thus, to our wisdom and intellectual agility.

If that sounds snobbish, well, so be it. My mourning presupposes two things: Books have an especially high status on the great chain of media (higher than, say, columns, blogs, TV shows, magazine articles and Twitter tweets), and professional reviews with large readerships have virtues not shared by amateur, unedited or niche reviews, which are multiplying.

In the cosmic sense, the same trends that threaten newspapers threaten books. It isn't just a matter of "business models" and the proliferation of alternative and cheap forms of amusement — computers, mobile, video games and everything on demand, all the time.

There is an aversion to long chunks of sentences.

And there is a literary death spiral. The less we read books, the less we read journalism; the less we read journalism, the less we read books. Reading skills atrophy or, worse, were never properly acquired to their fullest.

The dire problem is that long chunks of sentences are still the best way humans have to express complex thoughts, intricate observations, fleeting emotions — the whole range of what we are. I have some confidence that newspaper (and broadcast) journalism can and will be successfully replaced on new platforms with different technologies and tools. I have no such confidence about replacing what lives in books. That is why it is important to howl at the demise of these little book sections.

Full disclosure, Part I: I published a book in August 2008. It was reviewed in quite a few newspapers, but not as many as "big" books by very well-known writers. It was reviewed by far more amateurs and bloggers. The ratio of positive to negative, as far as I can tell, was the same, and I was pleased by my reviews.

Full disclosure, Part II: I hope that NPR and NPR.org can compensate for the shrinking amount of professional book coverage in newspapers. So, I'm not arguing that the end of the book review section means that book readership and coverage are entering an inexorable decline.

And there may be lessons to learn. Maybe it's just me, but the default position of newspaper reviewers too often seems to be snarky and unappreciative, which I don't think is a necessary ingredient of smart criticism. Newspaper book editors have a frustrating proclivity to assign general interest books to competing authors or academics with very parochial perspectives rather than to reader-friendly generalists. By contrast, bloggers and Amazon reviewers seem more inclined to write as part of a community of readers — discerning and honest, yet respectful and supportive. That's a broad generalization for sure, but I think it has merit. The few print feature writers who write about books and authors also seem more generous than reviewers.

If this is so, I should be celebrating the democratization of book reviewing. And I do, to a degree. Thanks to the Web, there are certainly far more reviews easily available to any reader than ever before, be they bloggers or Amazonistas. That's great.

But it doesn't follow that the decline of professional writing about books is something to cheer about. It isn't. Both professional and amateur critics have their roles, and we are worse off without more of both. But newspaper critics had a special role, exposing a large, general readership to a wide variety of writers, books and genres with at least a modicum of fairness, civility and erudition.

More important, the collapse of professional reviewing is just part of a cultural devaluing of books and even formally written words. (The best look we have at the state of American reading comes from the National Endowment for the Arts.)

It is unclear whether the American attention span can support book reading for much longer. As children are reared on "Baby Einstein" and then fertilized by an ever expanding diet of fast-paced electronic stimulation, as our communication gets sliced and diced into instant messages and abbreviated e-mails, it would be unrealistic to expect our synapses to stay the same. We will simply like books less than we did.

In capitalism, value is allocated in the form of money. That less money is being allocated to books and book publicity means that the society values books less. Books must be the most unprofitable form of entertainment and media today. You can probably count the number of authors and publishers who make, say, top lawyer money on your fingers and toes. Celebrity rarely comes to authors just from their books, but instead through movies and television.

This is a cruel virtue in most ways. It is partly because book writing is largely immune from the huge profiteering and wildly promiscuous marketing of, say, the shampoo or video game businesses that so many fabulous, contrarian, angry and wholly unique novels, biographies, histories and political books are written. Big money has homogenized movies and television, for example, and a "winner take all" economy of culture distributes huge rewards to the most popular few, with less left for the oddballs and dissenters. That isn't true of books yet, though fewer authors can make livings writing and reviewing books.

The stand-alone book review section is just a bit player in all this. But it is the last venue for attention to books that has great stature and a large (ish) audience. Now it's being spiked, and that's not a good chapter.

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