The Best and Worst of Times for Book Review Culture

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Here is a great, long essay on book reviewing–focused, in a surprisingly refreshing way, on the web-versus-print debate that everyone is always already sick of–from the pages of The Nation. The article doesn’t necessarily bowl you over with amazing insights sent down from I-wish-I-said-that Land. Rather, John Palatella articulates ideas that have been popping up in myriad places, but not usually expressed with the force and focus used here. Still, if you care about books, about writing on the web, about print coverage of the written word, you should read this essay (maybe even buy a copy of the magazine it appears in?). In the meantime, the following are some of Palatella’s best points, lightly contextualized for your reading pleasure.

On web versus print:

In some ways, Grafton points out, “the world of writing has not so much been transformed” by the web as restored to a ghostly, hyperactive version of the newspaper world of the early twentieth century.

On why book review sections have been disappearing from newspapers:

Yet of all the sections that fail to turn a profit on their own, it’s the books section that is most often killed or pinched. Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can’t earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. 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.

A caveat!:

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.

After describing the narrowness and intellectual un-seriousness of online book reviewing:

One exception is the Barnes & Noble Review, a web-only venture that generally avoids gossip and trade talk. It is better edited than any newspaper books section, but it also happens to be owned by the country’s largest corporate chain bookstore. Neither the quality of its reviews nor the generosity of its writers’ fees can expunge from its pages its innate commercialism.

A sorrowing catchphrase for all those writers who struggle to be paid for work everyone expects to read for free online:

On the web, we are all interns now.

The uplifting conclusion, with a little fancy syntax thrown in, for your reading pleasure:

Despite the turmoil and doubts, I think there’s no better time than the present to be covering books. The herd instinct is nearly extinct: newspapers inadvertently killed it when they scaled back on books coverage en masse; and the web, for all its crowds and their supposed wisdom, is a zone of unfederated cantons. The field is wide open. If you can’t take chances now, if in such a climate you can’t risk seeking an air legitimate and rare, when can you?

You should really read the whole shebang, if only so you can use, as I have, the word shebang when passing it along to your book-loving buddies.

(Thanks, The Second Pass.)

Source: The Nation

Image by gadl, licensed under Creative Commons.

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