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February 06, 2004

More on Book Review Editing

Dear Friedrich --

Because I'm the kind of bore who can't let go of a topic without giving it one final shake ...

Here's a list of some of the culturethings I've been looking at/listening to/flipping through during the last few weeks.

  • "A History of Classical Music" by Richard Fawke -- a Naxos four-CD package that's read by Robert Powell and that includes many musical examples. An excellent first spin through the history of Western art music, by the way. It's buyable here.
  • "Money Money Money," a terrific police-procedural crime novel by Ed McBain, which I listened to in an abridged version on audiotape.
  • Several episodes of the A&E series "American Justice." The Wife loves Bill Kurtis, the show's host, and the episodes themselves are well-told, hour-long true-crime stories.
  • Several Howard Goodall music-history shows on Ovation.
  • A three-part IFC documentary about American movies in the '70s.
  • An English documentary about Dizzy Gillespie.
  • The usual huge number of websites.
  • A talk by the wonderful Vedanta guru, Swami Prabhavananda, which I listened to on audio. (Tons of Vedanta-related books and tapes are buyable here.)

A few decades ago, all the above media products might well have been books. These days they're media products instead. They were all, by the way, just as satisfying as good books, and often (to my mind) better-scaled, as in "finito in a few hours."

I think this list can help explain two things that are useful when thinking about the state of bookchat and book reviewing.

* It helps explain why so much vitality has gone out of the book world. There's been no loss of cultural vitality in a general sense, IMHO, but as media options have opened up, energy has dispersed among them. (I don't read as many books in the traditional way as I once did; and I don't watch network TV anymore either. Both are consequences of the same thing -- the explosion in media options.) Cultural energy now slops around among many media possibilities. There used to be a small number of well-defined categories: network TV; movies; books; classical, jazz or pop music; etc. These days, there are an uncountable number of categories. What to call, for instance, a website that includes visuals, writing, biographies, and sound clips? That's certainly a project that a few decades ago might have been a book. Is it a tragedy that today it's a website instead? If so, why? Gee whiz: it's free, it's accesssible, it's easy to use, and the blending of media works better on a website than it ever could in a book. As far as I can tell, its availability as a web thing is a big fat plus for consumers. But the fact that it's a website rather than a book does mean that the world of books per se is a little less rich than it might have been.

* My list also helps illustrate the kinds of challenges book-review editors are up against. A simple-and-obvious example: these days, where does the "books" field start and stop? Strictly with books? If so, does that include audiobooks? If it includes audiobooks, how can you exclude recorded lecture series? If you exclude audiobooks, do you focus instead on "reading and writing"? Well, the web is full of reading and writing -- do you cover the web?

So a book-review editor is faced not just with the fact that the bookworld no longer has the same kind of vitality it once did, it's also much harder to pin down as a coherent field. Yet the editor of the NYTBR section has gotta turn out 28 provocative, rewarding and interesting pages of "book review" every week.

Tough job! The fact is that books-per-se (much as we may love 'em) are no longer central to the culture, let alone well-defined. They're one media option among many, all of which seem to blend in to each other, and all of which seem to be dissolving at the core. Another example: as I've tried to note before, now that movies are being turned into pixels and monkeyed with in Photoshop-like ways, live-action movies have become a subcategory of computer animation.

Hey, as I type these words, I find myself musing about ebooks ... about how the video documentaries on my list above were just as good as many books, and were also soooooo much easier to get through ...

And I come up with a hunch: that a major innovation is with us, although kinks apparently still need to be ironed out -- the portable video player. These are little gizmos kind of like Ipods or GameBoys, but with color LCD screens and big-capacity hard drives that store tens of hours of decent-quality video. Imagine being able to suck what's on your Tivo or DVR onto such a machine. You could carry all that material in your backpack or purse; you could take it with you vacation. In many ways, it'd beat an e-book reader, which is a device that has been over-talked-about, and that no one has been able to manufacture a convincing example of anyway.

With a portable video player, you'd be able to watch your choice of programming on the bus or subway or in an airplane, or as you gobble down a lonely meal. When you think about it, it's an amazing new machine -- and one that it's hard to believe people won't make widespread use of. Is this a good or a bad development? If the programming that's available is as satisfying as some of what I list at the top of the posting, it seems to me to be a very good thing. But it'd of course be yet another blow to books-per-se.

A posting where I argue that the e-book revolution is not just with us but is already over (hint: it's the web) is here. A posting where I muse a bit about what the impact of small video screens might be is here. You can read about portable video players here, here and here.



posted by Michael at February 6, 2004


If God had wanted us to see movies or t.v. shows while on the move, he would have given us antennas! Instead, he gave us eyes. Hence, books reflect the divine purpose, and all this electronic stuff is just a tool of...welll..SATAN!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 6, 2004 08:31 PM

Too late! My brain has been electri-fried already!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 7, 2004 12:38 AM

**It (media options) helps explain why so much vitality has gone out of the book world.**

I disagree. The vitality has gone out of the book world because the vitality has gone out of book *writing*, at least in the fiction genre.

I'm one of those who believe that there have been no real fiction writers (novelists) at work for decades. Ditto poets. Try as I might, it all leaves me cold. I can still be moved by a Cavafy or a Dickinson poem and I can still be fascinated with a re-reading of Dostoevsky.....but everything after them, with a few exceptions, seems to me, well, silly, amateurish and superficial.

I think there is great (which is to say - interesting) writing around: "A Short History of Time"..."In Defense of Elitism"...that kind of thing. But *imaginative* writing is dead.

It's the same in the plastic arts...architecture, painting and so on. I can appreciate and recoginze a Picasso and even the Brillo Boxes of Warhol as art. But they aren't GREAT art in the sense that the Old Masters were. The Old Masters soared to heights never again to be achieved - not even close - and became not just symbols but constituent parts of Western civilization. The Picassos and The Warhols simply aren't in the same league and anyone who believes they are is kidding himself.

*Why* this should be the case is an interesting question which has yet to be answered, but the proliferation of media modes can hardly be the answer or even an important part of it, at least for me. There has always been junk, squalor and "pestilence", even in the times of the Greats.....but that didn't stop them.

Perhaps Denis Dutton's article "Of Human Accomplishment" in the journal "The New Criterion" which you mentioned recently may more closely point to an explanation for this sad state of affairs.


Alo Kievalar

Posted by: Alo Kievalar on February 8, 2004 10:52 AM

Alo -- Yeah, the explanation for it has got to be multi-pronged. I feel sorry sometimes for present-day painters and fiction writers, for example. Movies, tv, pop music -- I mean, people kinda need new ones. They're social occasions, they get get used and then we move on. But libraries and museums are already full of great stuff, and no one really needs any new novels or paintings. They don't serve (except in small ways) the kinds of social functions that movies do.

And, for whatever reason, these days I find that, when I am in a mood for some new fiction, I'll tend to reach for a crime writer instead of a "lit" writer. My luck is better, and I like forms where the rules and expectations are well-defined. Too many new lit books seem to exist in a world where they're either great or their awful, which of course means that 99 out of 100 of them are awful. Crime fiction can be "pretty good," or "very good." It doesn't live or die as entertainment depending on whether it's great or not.

Do you read any new fiction these days? And if so, what kind of fiction does it tend to be?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 8, 2004 06:32 PM

Michael-- Many thanks for your comments. And many thanks for your excellent BLOG (which I've only recently found). It's refreshing to come across one of some depth and character. Most (99.99%) have turned into a kind of "chat room" (with only the owners doing the chatting) with messages very often beginning with the exclamation "I'm back!!" As if anyone cares.

I remember once visiting my sister in the small Indiana village where she lives and going to a well-publicized artists' fair. The ads read something like: "The work of more than 200 state-wide artists will be on display."

And I remember saying to myself: 200? Even the Renaissance could hardly boast of such a number of artists! My point: anyone can claim the title of artist (or writer) [or priest] these days.....a proposition that would be laughable if it weren't taken seriously by so many.

When I do read fiction these days, they tend to be adventure/spy/thriller type things...I'll even do the occassonal science fiction once in a while, although I'm no longer a teenager. But even as a teen reading in these genres, I knew I wasn't reading "Literature" - it was entertainment.

Perhaps I'm being too a teen I read all of Dickens, for example, but I must admit that now I doubt I'd have the required "stay-with-it-ness" that his novels with its hundreds of pages. For some reason, I had no trouble at all doing this as a teen.....I had absolutely no problem reading them ALL during one summer I think it was. I even recall regretting that there weren't more to read.

One of my criteria for reading ANYTHING these days, in fact, is the 'thickness' of the book. If it's more than 200 pages long, I don't attempt it. This rule applies only to fiction, of course. It's not an issue with things like history or biography or "academic" material. In fact, my most recent purchase is Curtius's "European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages" with its nearly 800 pages, a fascinating tome which allows the reader to randomly read a without regard to sequence.

Besides possibly being too harsh, I'm perhaps also showing my literary limitations. If everyone says that Hemingway is great, if everyone agrees that Saul Bellow is "superb", what does that say about someone like me who finds these authors excrutiatingly boring, lifeless and absurd?

At least, there's plenty around that doesn't bore me....I can be grateful for that.

Alo Kievalar

Posted by: Alo Kievalar on February 9, 2004 11:49 AM

"Most (99.99%) have turned into a kind of "chat room" (with only the owners doing the chatting) with messages very often beginning with the exclamation "I'm back!!" As if anyone cares."

I've been laughing at that comment out loud in my office at work for long enough now, that, given that I am in here alone, it's sure be causing talk. But thanks for the laugh.

Posted by: annette on February 11, 2004 02:23 PM

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