May 23, 2013
Goodbye to All That
Posted on Sep 7, 2007
Regional theaters and opera companies blossomed even as Tower Records closed its doors. CD sales might have been slipping, but online music was soaring. Almost ten years later, Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s new general manager, understands this cultural shift better than most and launched a series of live, high-definition broadcasts of operas like Puccini’s Il Trittico and Mozart’s Magic Flute shown at movie theaters across America. His experiment was a triumph, pulling in thousands of new viewers. As Alex Ross reported in The New Yorker, Gelb’s broadcasts “have consistently counted among the twenty highest-grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood’s proudest blockbusters on a per-screen, per-day average. Such figures are a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written off classical music as an art with no mass appeal.” The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything.
Thanks to Amazon, geography hardly matters. It is now possible through the magic of Internet browsing and buying to obtain virtually any book ever printed and have it delivered to your doorstep no matter where you live. This achievement, combined with the vast archipelago of bricks-and-mortar emporiums operated by, say, Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the more robust of the independent stores, has given Americans a cornucopia of riches. To be sure, there has also been the concomitant and deplorable collapse of many independent bookstores—down by half from the nearly four thousand such stores that existed in 1990. Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.
This is, strangely, a story that has not received near the attention it deserves. And yet its implications are large, especially if papers are to have a prayer of retaining readers and expanding circulation. There is money to be made in culture, if only newspapers were nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them.
Yet the opposite appears to be the case. In 1999, Michael Janeway and András Szántó directed a year-long study of how America’s newspapers covered the arts. Their conclusion: poorly. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and based at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the study found that straightforward listings of upcoming events make up “close to 50 percent of arts and entertainment coverage” and that “in-house staffing and resources have not been increased to match an explosion of arts activity.” The report noted that “the visual arts, architecture, dance and radio get only cursory coverage” and that “the daily Arts & Living section lags behind both business and sports as a priority on almost every newspaper, both in its allotment of pages and staff.” Yet, by almost every measure, Americans are a people who spend vast amounts of time and income pursuing leisure activities of all kinds, including reading. Sure, book sales might be down nationally and serious reading a minority pursuit, but other indicators suggested a persistent and passionate engagement with the written word.
By the early years of the twenty-first century, for example, book clubs had grown to an estimated five million members. Brian Lamb’s CSPAN-2 airs in-depth, commercial-free interviews with and readings by nonfiction authors round-the-clock every weekend. And even in Los Angeles, a city notorious for making a fetish of the body and eschewing the life of the mind, interest in books flourishes. I found myself returning to a Los Angeles in which more bookstores were thriving than ever before in the city’s history. Indeed, in some years the average per-capita sales of books in the Los Angeles metropolitan region had often exceeded—by some $50 million—such annual sales in the greater New York area.
Serious reading, of course, was always a minority taste. We’ve known that ever since Dr. Johnson. “People in general do not willingly read,” he said, “if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to. Of those who do, most read for the entirely understandable pleasures of escaping the drudgeries of daily life or for moral, spiritual, financial, or physical self-improvement, as the history of American best-sellers suggests. The fables of Horatio Alger, the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, the nostrums of Marianne Williamson, the inspirations of such secular saints as Lee Iaccoca—all are the golden jelly on which the queen bees of American publishing have traditionally battened.
Obsessive devotion to the written word is rare. Acquiring the knowledge and technique to do it well is arduous. Serious readers are a peculiar breed. Elizabeth Hardwick, for one, has always known this. “Perhaps the love of, or the intense need for, reading is psychological, an eccentricity, even something like a neurosis, that is, a pattern of behavior that persists beyond its usefulness, which is controlled by inner forces and which in turn controls.” For this kind of reading is a profoundly antisocial act: it cannot be done in concert with friends; it is not a branch of the leisure industry, whose entertainments, whether video or computer or sports or rock ’n’ roll, can be enjoyed in the mass. How many times, for instance, did you ever say as a child: “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m reading?”
Twenty-five years ago, the distinguished editor and publisher Elisabeth Sifton announced the discovery of what she dubbed Sifton’s Law: “There is a natural limit on the readership for serious fiction, poetry and nonfiction in America that ranges, I would say, between 500 and 5,000 people—roughly a hundred times the number of the publisher’s and the author’s immediate friends.” Sifton’s Law was a gloss on Dwight MacDonald’s puckish speculation of the late 1940s in which he supposed that there were only about five thousand people interested in serious writing. The problem, he observed two decades later, was that it was likely the same five thousand but they were all getting quite a bit longer in the tooth.
That suspicion could not have surprised the folks at the Book-of-the-Month Club. They had long been monitoring the steady decline in Americans’ reading habits. Back in the middle of the Great Depression, long before the advent of television, much less the Internet, the club had hired the Gallup organization to survey reading habits among Americans. In 1937, Gallup found that only 29 percent of all adults read books; in 1955, the percentage had sunk to 17 percent. Fifteen years later, in 1970, the club evidently no longer could bear to know, and Gallup stopped asking. True, the total income of American publishers continued to rise, but that happy news concealed a more troubling reality: profits reflected inflationary costs passed along in higher list prices, while the number of readers flocking to bookstores continued to decline. That is still the case.
The terrible irony is that at the dawn of an era of almost magical technology with a potential of deepening the implicit democratic promise of mass literacy, we also totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect. One is reminded of Philip Roth’s old aphorism about Communism and the West: “In the East, nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters.” In today’s McWorld, the forces seeking to enroll the populace in the junk cults of celebrity, sensationalism, and gossip are increasingly powerful and wield tremendous economic clout. The cultural conversation devolves and is held hostage to these trends. The corporate wars over who will control the technology of newsgathering and electronic communication and data and distribution are increasingly fierce. Taken together, these factors threaten to leave us ignorant of tradition, contemptuous of the habits of quality and excellence, unable to distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And the book itself—compact, portable, sensuous—has yet to be bested as our most important information-retrieval system. Even Bill Gates, that Yoda of the virtual world, has been unable to resist its seductions. When, in 1996, he wanted to tell us about “The Road Ahead,” to commit the vision thing, what did he do? He had the Viking Press publish his book. He did not post his Delphic pronunciamentos on his Microsoft site. For Gates knew then—as he knows now, despite his recent insistence that the digital future will carry the day—that the book still retains the patina of authority that only time and tradition can bestow.
What matters in this Kulterkampf is a newspaper’s ambition, its business acumen, and its cultural imagination. It’s a question of allocation of resources, of what a paper’s owners and editors think is important for readers to know. It is a question of what, in the judgment of the paper’s minders, is news. It’s a question of respect for ordinary readers’ intelligence and their avidity for culture. Famously, books contain news that stays news. I believed when I was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review—as I believe now—that there is no more useful framework for understanding America and the world it inhabits. It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.
Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.
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