The New Book Burning

The ongoing collapse of book review sections in U.S. newspapers has accelerated in recent months - an intellectual brownout in progress that is beginning to look like a rolling blackout instead.
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In the new book burning we don't burn books, we burn discussion of them instead. I am referring to the ongoing collapse of book review sections at American newspapers, which has accelerated in recent months, an intellectual brownout in progress that is beginning to look like a rolling blackout instead.

Among the most recent examples is the mid-April decision by the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to eliminate its book editor position, leaving the fate of book reviews there in doubt, as well as the future employment of its book editor, Teresa Weaver. A petition drive to save the position and the book section itself can be found here, which at last count had some 2,300 signatories. At Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee's April 25 post takes up the matter in a larger context. Further information can be found on Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, which has instituted a campaign to save book reviewing, and in Publishers Weekly in reporting by Lynn
and Craig Morgan Teicher.

The decision in Atlanta is but a stark illustration of the evisceration of books coverage that is proceeding at an astonishing pace. On April 22, the Chicago Tribune announced that beginning May 19, its book section will be switched to Saturdays rather than being continued as a Sunday section -- a move that will cut circulation of the section roughly in half. Editor Elizabeth Taylor, putting the best face on the situation, wrote in an editorial note that there will in fact be "expanded" coverage of books throughout the newspaper during the week, a redesigned Web presence, and the introduction of a book blog.

The upcoming Tribune move in many ways parallels what has just occurred at the Los Angeles Times, which in mid-April folded its three-decades-old freestanding book section into a combined section with its opinion pages. Book editor David Ulin concedes that the Sunday book review has "shrunk," but the addition of Web-based columns and coverage both on the Web and in weekday editions of the paper are intended to compensate for that shrinkage.

Elsewhere, at the The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., book editor Peder Zane's position was recently cut. At the San Francisco Chronicle, which folded its book section in with other pages in 2001 only to restore it as a freestanding section after reader outcry, editor Oscar Villalon is left with a four-page broadsheet rather than the six pages his section once had, with the average number of weekly reviews down by one-third. At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, book editor Bob Hoover observed that 250 words is getting to be the standard length for reviews at his paper. In the fall, book critic Jerome Weeks of The Dallas Morning News left the paper rather than face the dramatic cuts in arts coverage that were imposed. Nearly everywhere, assigned, original coverage of books has been cut back in favor of wire-service features (if anything). Newspapers where that is the case include the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Tallahassee Democrat, Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Orlando Sentinel. At alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice (which booted out its book editor in a reorganization), the Boston Phoenix and others, literary supplements have had their frequency cut back or been eliminated altogether, and chain ownership has had a deleterious effect on books coverage in many other locales.

How did we arrive at what seems to be a cultural sinkhole? In an excellent report in The Wall Street Journal online in March, Jeffrey Trachtenberg cited the dearth of advertising by publishers in book sections as the primary culprit. And by his count, there are five freestanding newspaper book sections left in the country. Surely the lack of advertising support by the publishing industry has been a major factor, as it has shifted promotional budgets toward chain bookstore display space (paying for placement in windows and the pyramided aisle display tables), national co-op advertising, and other efforts. But it is one factor among many -- changes in retail practices, the so-called "blockbuster complex" in which fewer books account for a larger share of sales, the journalistic prevalence of feature coverage over criticism among them.

Is this old-media carping, a harridan argument, given that the blogosphere seems vibrant and healthy? I would say that blogs have their strengths -- access, immediacy, variety, sharpness of voice -- but accommodation to extended or complex argument is not one of them, which is why we should all regret the cutbacks in book coverage in print venues. By choking off such discussion of books (rumored to have ideas associated with them) we impoverish the public weal and help ensure that they are shipped back to their point of origin after the very briefest of shelf lives. And no one calls that censorship, either.

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