Sunday, September 9, 2007

Stephen Wasserman on the End of Book Reviewing

The front page of The Columbia Journalism Review has a long and thoughtful piece about the decision of newspapers to drop their book review sections, who's to blame, who loses, and what it all means. Wasserman -- a former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review -- makes some refreshingly honest observations: that newspaper book reviewing has never made money for newspapers, that their reviews have been increasingly shallow and poorly written for years (many notable exceptions, of course), that much of journalism is openly hostile to reading, and that review-only publications like The New York Review of Books have been taking up the slack for a long time, and incidentally making a profit.

Most refreshing of all, he doesn't simply blame bloggers. One has to admit that money continues to shift from print media to electronic, but it's not as if a celebrity-obsessed, attention-deficient basement proletariat has risen up to stab the likes of James Wood in the back (as much as... never mind). Bloggers are trying to fill a long-standing void. Serious reviewers are not going to just go away: they'll be published elsewhere. And as I think I've said here before: though what's happening to reviewing is a shame, it's nothing compared to what papers have done to, say, foreign reporting. (Two words: Judith Miller).

Serious reading has never had, and never will have, mass appeal. Decrying this is a waste of breath, and I don't think I'm a cynic for saying so. But. I also don't think I'm being naive or idealistic to believe that intelligent book conversation will thrive on the internet. And that as papers slowly kill themselves, chopping their own limbs off one by one, that conversation will continue.

Incidentally: I have a certain amount of hope for the future of serious reading. Though it may never be as popular as other things, there are so many more kid readers, and so many more good kid books, than there were 25 years ago. The success of Harry Potter, is, I think, a result of this, not the cause. I really believe the teaching of reading is better these days, though I might be the only person in the universe saying that.


the individual voice said...

I agree with you about the future of reading. There are great kid books for all ages, starting with so many amazing picture books. And as for Harry Potter, I much prefer the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events (though I have mixed feelings about the first one.)

rmellis said...

My older son has excellent taste in books, and he agrees with you.