Seeking some solace I picked up a book, and in a matter of minutes I read the following passage:Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.The sense of impoverishment before an overabundance of information; of helplessness before the need to spot relevant material in a slurry of ephemera; of vertigo provoked by the realization that "the present" is becoming overwhelmingly, annoyingly accessible—many of us, I'd wager, have had these reactions after reading those year-end digests or spending just a modicum of time online. Now anyone is free to print whatever they wish. This could be someone kvetching about blogs, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube or Twitter, and in not 500 words or 300 but nine. Except it wasn't. The jeremiad was the handiwork of Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, writing to his friend Francesco Guarnerio in 1471, less than twenty years after the invention of the printing press.
This anecdote does not suggest that past is prologue but rather underscores the importance of thinking historically, of taking a long view when trying to understand changes in deeply engrained patterns in literary culture. I stumbled upon Perotti's plaint in Robert Darnton's essay collection The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (2009). Rejecting the commonplace notion that digital technology has ushered in a new era, "the so-called information age," Darnton argues that every age in which a new technology has altered forms of writing and communication has been an age of information, and that in every such age "information has never been stable." There is continuity to the history of technological transformations, Darnton suggests: what is everpresent is the experience of rupture. Anthony Grafton, another historian of the book, makes a similar point in "Codex in Crisis," from his recent essay collection Worlds Made by Words (2009): "The current drive to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical projects in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up, but in one more in a series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive and flourish." The point impresses because one of its implications is that a technological innovation, whether the printing press, the telegraph, the television or a digital device, though it delivers information in a new form, is not necessarily the root cause of problems with—or controversies about—reading and writing that have arisen in its wake.
After that beginning, I had to go on reading, even though the next sentence was "I'd like to talk about a meltdown, one that's occurring not on Wall Street but Grub Street, that storied realm of writers, booksellers, bohemians and hacks" and I wasn't certain I really wanted to read more about the current state of newspaper journalism. Actually, though, Palatella's essay turned out to be more about the declining space for book reviewing in newspapers-- noting, among other things, that the sixties and seventies saw a vast increase not only in the amount of news published in metropolitan papers, but also in the space they allotted to book reviews:
Between 1964 and 1999, the volume of news published by some metropolitan papers doubled. The dimensions of the news changed too. As Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson explained last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, during the boom years newspapers began to gravitate away from a longstanding preoccupation with government and with pegging coverage to specific political events; papers still worked those beats, but they also began to cultivate "a much broader understanding of public life that included not just events, but also patterns and trends, and not just in politics, but also in science, medicine, business, sports, education, religion, culture, and entertainment."In looking at the shrinking of book review space in newspapers, Palatella fingers something that came up in the Global Machismo panel we've been talking about on this blog since WisCon:
The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.
"Anti-intellectual" is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, "anti-intellectual" does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word "anti-intellectual" to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.
In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard's new translation of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper's editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about "another dead, white, European male." But the paper's readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a "Talk of the Town" item that traced the book's unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. "Have you gone crazy?" the editor asked. "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America's newspapers in the 1990s," Romano reflected, "is their hostility to reading in all forms."
The taboo still exists, and it is sometimes enforced not by other editors but by newspaper books sections themselves.
The New York Times Book Review comes in for criticism here.
Along with tackling disinformation bolstering a non-reality-based ideology, I'd like to see something done about the rampant anti-intellectualism that has been such a scourge in US politics and culture.