Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In January 2009, the Washington Post announced that it would be dropping the stand-alone Book World section of the paper’s Sunday edition. Book World had been created in the 1960s and was one of the few remaining stand-alone sections for book reviews in American newspapers.

The trend had been in process for the preceding decade. In 2000, Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, commented, “A lot of papers have either dropped book coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. The newsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don’t any longer.”

A few months after McGrath penned these words, the San Francisco Chronicle decided it would no longer be publishing its Sunday Datebook of arts and cultural coverage, which had been based on the understanding that books are newsworthy. The Chronicle had to reintroduce the Datebook after protests from book lovers, but eventually reduced it to just four pages.

In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. They Globe’s decision was followed by numerous other newspapers expunging their long-standing tradition of offering serious book reviews.

In 2007, Steve Wasserman reflected over the developments of the previous seven years in a fascinating article for the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, commented that

“Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely.”

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.”

“Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor’s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribune decided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week.… In June, the San Diego Union-Tribune killed its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to move book reviews into its arts pages.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on the newspapers for dropping their separate book review sections. Newspapers, like any business, need to make money to survive, and that means giving customers what they want. The American public has gradually lost the interest it once had in reading, and hence in book reviews. This was confirmed by statistics released by the National Endowment for the Arts, which Wasserman cited in his article:

“In June 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of an authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000 adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning twenty years of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority of Americans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might be called literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed, when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play, or poem.”

Why are so many people choosing not to read? Have people changed? Not really. In the eighteenth-century Samuel Johnson noted that “People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Although it has always been a problem that people will not read if they can be amused, throughout most of human history people have not had immediate access to amusing things, and so they read. This was especially true in America in the mid nineteenth-century, which I am told was the height of any reading culture in the history of the world.

Things have changed since then, and now anyone can have an internet connection in their pocket and instantly access an unlimited array of amusing things.

Wasserman hinted at these shifts when he pointed to “the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization… 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.”

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He went on to observe that

“the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

“These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed.”

Wasserman’s observation that our visually furious culture is “hollowing out the habits of attention” remains central to understanding the decline in book reading. To truly appreciate a book requires many skills beyond mere literacy, including habits of attentiveness that seem to be under assault by so many different aspects of contemporary life.

As our habits of attentiveness are increasingly eroded, the interest in books and book reviews is lost. Yet I hope to show in future posts that much more is lost than simply an interest in books the disciplines necessary for reading them. What is also eroded is a richness of soul, a sensitive imagination and the type of listening skills that are necessary for healthy relationships.


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