Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Shoring up our base

More of the same drumbeating argument, with some interesting bits.
Instead, strong anecdotal evidence suggests that book reviews fall somewhere near the middle. So why don't editors feel as sentimental about them as they do about plenty of other stories that won't ever knock terrorist attacks or wardrobe malfunctions out of the top 10? For one thing, freelancers contribute most of the copy to newspaper book review sections, and freelancers cost a few extra bucks. For another, trying to publish a review of every halfway interesting new book each week is like trying to review every new video on YouTube. It's beyond hopeless. So why should we blame some harried arts editor for thinking, "That beat's uncoverable. Let's just give up and run sudoku-plus instead."

That editor might almost have a point, if book reviews and the people who write them weren't what biologists like to call an "indicator species." An indicator species is the newt or worm in an ecosystem that nobody much notices until it starts to disappear. And even then, who really misses another polliwog -- until six months later when, suddenly, even the buzzards are dead?

Like it or not, the indicator species for American daily journalism is the book review. Newspapers were cutting book coverage before the current flurry, among other places in Detroit, San Jose and Boston. Without exception, losing their book pages failed to stanch either reader loss or red ink. Were these papers already in trouble before they started cutting book coverage? Of course, but what did their publishers expect by further alienating people who like to read -- the one constituency no newspaper can survive without? Put another way, how can institutions that cover electoral politics be so deaf to every campaign's first commandment, namely, "Shore up your base"?
I wish there was some magic way we could get people to read more, but try to jam something down peoples' throats -- kids, especially -- and they will undoubtedly reject the idea more quickly. Kipen talks at length about the number of different organizations out there designed to increase awareness of the importance of reading, but he stumbles when he gets into hyperbolic doom-and-gloom predictions. Arguments that people read less than they ever have -- I've been hearing that all my life and I just don't think it holds much water. There are lots and lots of people out there with lots of books on their shelves. Still, he's right in that as a country we need to get it back into people's heads that it's cool to be smart and well-informed about as many different topics as possible, and that it's not cool to be a lazy, dumbass moron addicted to fast food and network television.

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