Commentary Magazine


Words, Words, Words

Here at the horizon, Dara Mandle wonders about the death of reading. Over at The New Republic, James Wolcott offers a lengthy and vastly entertaining piece on the decline of book reviewing (the piece itself is a review of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America), a topic also explored recently by Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review. All seem to agree that reading (and serious thinking on it) is in a state of flux, and probably on the wane. Mandle’s post, for example, ends with the question, “Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?” The underlying assumption is that reading needs saving, and that recent cultural and technological shifts are part of what’s killing it.

It’s an easy assumption to make, of course, but as Wolcott’s essay points out, it’s hardly a novel idea. Academics, intellectuals, and ordinary book lovers have been fretting over the decline of serious writing and serious thinking about writing for decades. As always, reactions vary. Many, like Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun, have simply given up, pronouncing the internet-dominated literary scene a total loss. Others, including critics like Terry Teachout and journalists like Megan McArdle (now of the Atlantic), are more enthusiastic.

I lean towards enthusiasm, but I think some of the worries and criticisms are valid, if somewhat misplaced. The danger to reading, it seems to me, is less of the lack of respect for books and book criticism, or the uninformed opinions of amateurs replacing the thoughtful screeds of professionals, or the diminishing number of book reviews in newspapers, but instead, the glut of written material fighting for our collective attention. Even the most robust literary scene would have difficulty keeping up with the truckloads of books published each year. And although newspapers may be publishing fewer book reviews, the internet, by giving free and easy access to all those with internet access, has actually expanded access to top-tier reviews for nearly everyone.

Book review pages in medium sized newspapers have fallen off in large part because they are unnecessary in a world where nearly everyone can easily browse the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, smaller publications, including blogs, but also established print journals, are flourishing on the web, creating a wealth of easy-to-access material for every niche. The difficulty with reading these days is not that there is too little being written, or that no one is doing it, or even that no one is doing it well. It’s that there’s too much to read, too much to process. We are not short for words. We are drowning in them.