Friday, June 04, 2010

Amen, brother ...

... The Death and Life of the Book Review. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

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.

My former colleague, Desmond Ryan, and I had lunch yesterday. Afterward, Des drove us to The Inquirer. Something was playing on the car radio. At first I thought it was Schubert, but then realized it was Schumann. Des immediately added that it was the second symphony. You won't find many journalists who could have come close, probably none holding an executive position.


  1. Although my work contains no classical music, I do believe that one enormous benefit of cultural knowledge is that it keeps us humble: whenever I hear something on the classical station that I can't name, I'm reminded of what a big world there is out there, and how much more I have to learn.

  2. The point about the anti-intellectual tendency within both journalism and pop culture is well-taken. It actually affects things a lot more than people realize. It certainly affects politics. When did being smart become a handicap? It's too bad. And yet it's always been a tendency within American culture.

  3. Another case in point: In 1952, Time magazine assumed its readers wanted a straightforward update on efforts to preserve and publish Old English manuscripts. In 2000, the same magazine ran a review of Heaney's translation of Beowulf that spent its first three paragraphs mentioning Harry Potter, calling Beowulf "the deadest white European male in the politically incorrect literary canon," and referring to "one-time English majors...who had learned to dread—if not actually read—what they had heard was a grim Anglo-Saxon epic."

    Likewise, when the (not very good) Beowulf movie came out in 2007, a Time reviewer declared: "The little I remember about Beowulf the poem, which is nothing, since I never read it, is that it was incredibly boring."

    When Time finally dies, it'll be at least partly because the magazine (like much mainstream book coverage) so easily adopted an ironic tone without grasping the true irony of repelling avid readers by implying at every turn that books and intellectual inquisitiveness are boring, embarrassing, and lame.