by Jacob T. Levy

Linda Hirshman's postgladTNRthemselvesRoss Douthat's objection to the whole enterprise
Whereas Herf's complaint isn't that nobody's reading books--it's that we're being exposed, by his calculations, to reviews of "only" 700 out of the estimated 10,000 books published by academic presses every year. This calculation is based on the rather dubious assumption that only the Times, the NYRB, and TNR publish book reviews worth reading (has Herf ever been to aldaily.com?), but even leaving that aside, is a nation where an educated person is exposed to "only" 700 book reviews a year (i.e., two reviews a day) really facing "a hole in [its] cultural life?" If a hypothetical educated American bought and read one book for every seven reviews he encountered, he'd be reading a hundred books a year, or two a week. That's a rate to envied, and one that I haven't managed since high school. Would my life be enriched if I could up my intake of books? Of course. But would I be more likely up my intake of books if I read, say, an extra thousand book reviews a year? I think not; if anything, I'd probably read even fewer books than I do now.

Look, I know where Herf is coming from: We live in an age that's glutted with books, and I'm very well aware of how depressing it is to watch thousands of well-written and worthy volumes - one's own included - appear over the course of the year and vanish without a trace. But this is a problem created by abundance (of would-be writers and publishers willing to take a chance on them), by specialization (the plethora of academic books that are extremely important, but only in extremely narrow fields), and by the mass market, which makes it harder for niche efforts to get traction in a world of Dan Browns. And as a result, it certainly can't be solved by founding a book review that tackles an extra thousand or so books a year, since the only people with the time and interest to read those reviews are already up to their ears in good books they meant to read but can't find the time for. Indeed, given this reality, a book-reviewing culture that narrows 10,000 published titles to 700 reviews is actually doing a pretty damn good job of winnowing the field to manageable proportions.
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