Don’t mourn, write

Originally published in Times Higher Education on February 26, 2009.

The United States has elected a man who appears to move effortlessly from book-reading to web-surfing, but it is no easier to imagine a sequel to “Books That Changed Our Minds,” a 1939 symposium in The New Republic. The contributors honored the books that guided big thinking during the last Great Depression.

Why no easier? Because to imagine President Obama changing his mind on national policy due to a book is also to imagine his local newspaper assisting him in the choice. And the week after he took office the Washington Post announced it was terminating “Book World,” its stand-alone section of book commentary and criticism. The Post then moved rapidly over the objections of 100 prominent scholars and writers to do so. With the final edition of the “Book-World” on Sunday, February 15th, went one of the few stand-alone book sections in the newspaper industry. The managers have joined with magazine editors and publishing executives in a strategy of saving their asses by disappointing their most articulate readers at the expense of their most honored traditions.

Reading, or something like it, still happens on some American campuses, even if academic monographs are poor alibis for deserting one’s teaching post. Lindsey Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press and author of Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (2004), argues in January’s Journal of Scholarly Publishing that essays, rather than books, should carry humanistic learning in the twenty-first century. Columnist Scott McLemee goes further; he “daydream(s) of a world in which people would be penalized for publishing too much and too early in their careers.”

Other suggestions, equally dramatic, are seriously discussed. Walter Isaacson, editor of Time, argued in a February 5th cover story, “How to Save Your Newspaper,” for charging online readers for content. Historian Douglas Brinkley, speaking to the New York Times about a “bailout” for the publishing industry, argues for sending the bill to the government. The Times itself is midway through a series, “The Future of Reading,” about the influence of new technologies on school librarians.

The crisis of public literacy is real enough: the result of an industrial conception of knowledge as information and scholarship as an instance of status, rather than a source of ethics. Nor do the critics inspire much hope. Waters and Isaacson write as if incentives and dis-incentives, penalties and rewards, are the beginning and the end of the problem.One possibility, thus overlooked, is that writers ought to write better. In our age of abundance, this means restraint, surely. Stop producing piffle, and a new generation of readers may yet rise.

Are any of the “Books That Changed Our Minds” worth reading today? The Education of Henry Adams and The Interpretation of Dreams, for sure. Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution? Lenin’s The State and Revolution? Yes to both, with all due reservations. Spengler’s The Decline of the West? Too soon to tell.