Wasserman on reviewing

CJR has a substantial piece on the decline of book reviewing by Steve Wasserman, former book review editor at the LA Times. He quotes the equally-former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of American newspapers in the 1990s is their hostility to reading in all forms.” Huh. Maybe that’s why print journalism is in trouble.

The article addresses the nonsensical but persistent idea that book coverage should be subsidized by book advertising. The former executive editor of the New York Times reportedly said: ““You can’t expect a payoff on reviewing books anymore than you can expect a payoff for covering foreign news.” (“Former” seems to be the proper form of address for newspaper editors.)

The peculiar thing is that though review space was shrinking, his newspaper was receiving around a thousand new books to review each week. Wasserman is puzzled that books are being shunted aside by newspapers now – just as they are reaching a new and huge audience.

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.

He cites an intriguing Gallup poll figure. “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.” A recent Ipsos poll found three out of four Americans had read a book in the previous year. Naturally the scare headline was My God, a quarter of Americans don’t read books! but three out of four is higher than many previous surveys.

I’ll have to dig up that Gallup poll and see what they actually asked, since there seems to be a disconnect here. Meanwhile, if you run out of reviews to read, you can always resort to books. There seem to be plenty of those to go around.

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