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Think Again: When Books Disappear

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The New York Times's Sunday Business section ran an extremely long investigation this week on the precarious financial state of the Barnes & Noble book chain. The irony of the story was both obvious and painful.

Not long ago, those of us concerned with the role of books in our culture were bemoaning Barnes & Noble's role in forcing the mom and pop bookstores of the nation out of business. Now we are all worried that the now beloved last holdout of "bricks and mortar" book chains will not survive the new era of bookselling and we will be left with nothing.

Like everything else, the demise of the bookstore is hardly monocausal, and certainly among the myriad reasons, the most obvious is the relative ease and convenience of Internet shopping, and another, rarely discussed notion: the concomitant death spiral of the newspaper. The papers that remain alive have done so at the expense of virtually every "nonessential" aspect of newsgathering and dissemination, and apparently first on everybody's list was book coverage.
As I noted in the current Columbia Journalism Review:

... newspapers "rarely pay attention to books anymore. The New York Times is the only paper that still publishes a stand-alone book review section, and fewer and fewer papers devote any daily space to even a single review. (In late July, the Los Angeles Times laid off every one of its already freelance book reviewers and columnists, leaving the job to just four remaining staffers.)

You can cry for the would-be authors whose path to financial security has all but disappeared if you like. I do. But even if you don't, one issue that people fail to notice is the fact that a number of phenomena in our society are simply too complex, or require too much background information for anyone to understand without book-length treatment. This is true even if one does not read the books themselves; the debate the public consumes now lacks the information and arguments that would previously have filtered into the ecosphere of political and cultural debate because nobody else is aware of them either. (After all, there was never a time when everyone could read everything.)

Because I try to be a friend to such books in my columns and my blogging, a lot of them cross my metaphorical desk. And I don't have time to read a fraction of them and my guess is neither do many other writers, journalists, editors, producers, bloggers, and what have you. And so while the information and understanding contained in them may be known to its readers, usually numbering in a few thousand, they no longer play the role in our democratic discourse that they did in the days when newspapers and magazines provided a robust forum to debate and discuss their ideas for the larger public.

So here is my attempt just to give a small flavor of what we're missing -- not by reading and reviewing all the books I discuss below, but rather by providing a few examples of new, important books that should inform our discourse. Alas, I don't expect to have time to read them all anytime soon but they do demonstrate the kinds of books that, in the past, might have helped shape the larger public's understanding of cultural and political issues for the better (and perhaps inspire some readers of this column to pick them up as well).

First up is The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on American Children by Katherine Stewart. According to The National Memo's website:

In 2009, Katherine Stewart learned that the Santa Barbara public elementary school her children attended had added a class called "The Good News Club" to its afterschool program. The Club, which is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, bills itself as an after-school program of "Bible study." But Stewart soon discovered that the Club's real mission is to convert children to a fundamentalist form of Christianity and encourage them to proselytize their "unchurched" peers, all the while promoting the false but unavoidable impression among the children that its activities are endorsed by the school.

Astonished to discover that there are 3500 Good News Clubs in public elementary schools around the country -- and that the Supreme Court has deemed this and other religious programs in public schools constitutional -- Stewart, who had previously written for Newsweek International and Rolling Stone, set out on an investigative journey across dozens of cities and towns to uncover their effects on our schools, children, and communities.

According to Stewart's research, the CEF's fundamentalism follows the pattern established by other Christian Nationalist groups, such as Coral Ridge Ministries (now Truth in Action Ministries), Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America. A central feature of this fundamentalism, for the CEF just as for the others, is a narrative involving the loss of national and moral "purity" and an anxious drive to recover or reclaim that purity. For many groups, this purity was often historically imagined, either explicitly or implicitly, as a "white purity."

And did you know that Condoleezza Rice has a cousin named "Connie" Rice, who does not ignore briefings about likely terrorist attacks; empower foolish, counterproductive invasions; and accede to illegal torture; but is in fact one of the most dedicated, successful, and inspiring civil rights attorneys in America? I did. We were at a conference together once upon a time, and I thought she was so amazing, I tried to get The New Yorker to let me profile her. I did not succeed, but I see now that she's written a memoir, Power Concedes Nothing, and in it she tells a story about struggles in inner-city Los Angeles and its awful public school system that would be pretty much impossible to read anywhere else.

I also wish I had the time to read Ira Shapiro's The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.

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