30 Sep

Slower, Longer, Smarter

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/30/07

Many years ago, when working at National Public Radio, I talked with a friend who had left NPR to work in the news department at ABC. During the conversation, he remarked that the biggest difference between his old colleagues and his new ones was that reporters and producers at NPR regularly read books, while the people at ABC generally didn't. He said this somewhat wistfully, suggesting that he missed the conversations and arguments that are nourished by a shared experience of the focused and sustained attentiveness that books make possible. Books, like music, are ways of ordering our experience of time and intellect. They encourage habits of mind that are quite different from those typical among people whose reading is enabled most often by a device appropriately called a "browser."

Since the work of MARS HILL AUDIO is achieved primarily by passing on information about books, I have long been interested in appraisals of the place books and what George Steiner calls "bookishness" play in society. So the cover story in the September/October 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review naturally called for my attention. "Goodbye to All That" is written by book editor and journalist Steve Wasserman, who for a number of years edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Wasserman's lead is that coverage of books in American newspapers is declining "with alarming speed." But, as he notes in his second paragraph, this decline has been going on for some time. Even the New York Times Book Review, the most prestigious and widely read book section in the country, has slimmed down from an average forty-two pages in 1985 to a present average of thirty-two pages.

The Internet is one reason for this decline, but this is not a zero-sum game in which identically valuable resources have simply been made available in a new setting. Wasserman worries that the loss of newspaper coverage of books is part of "the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument." Wasserman quotes Time film critic Richard Schickel who (in an article in the L.A. Times in May) bemoaned "the 'hairy-chested populism' promoted by the boosters of blogging. 'Criticism--and its humble cousin reviewing--is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.'"

Wasserman's article is a revealing window into newspaper and book publishing, as well as to the constructive and constituting place of books and news about books in a good society. As a fellow editor, I especially appreciated his description of the convictions he carried with him when he assumed responsibility for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1996. "Where everyone else was going faster, shorter, dumber, I was intent upon going slower, longer, smarter, on the perhaps foolhardy presumption that there were enough adults out there in Newspaper Land who yearned to be spoken to as adults."

Posted by Ken Myers on 10/1/07