"Marie and Carol Met in Paris Only as Mother and Son."
"Clyde Martin Found Dead in Yale Squash Room; End Came Suddenly to Noted Squash Player."
"Butler Makes Vote a Test of Coolidge as National Leader."
"Smith Mocks Rival's Hunt for Issue, Mills Calls Tammany Vital Question, As Huge Mass Meetings End Campaign."
Stop the presses! These are, indeed, the New York Times headlines ? from the New York Times of October 31, 1926. And what a gripping set of stories do they advertise!
The first ? in case you hadn't guessed it ? concerned "the intimate, inside story of how Queen Marie of Rumania and her son, Carol, the ex-Crown prince, met in Paris previous to the Queen's departure for America" ? a story which "set at rest the recurring interpretations that in her good-bye kiss to Prince Carol at the boat train in Paris the Queen was announcing to the world that the disowned heir would be restored to the royal succession. The reconciliation was personal, this official said, and did not change in the least the political situation in Rumania."
And what of Clyde Martin, "considered one of the greatest squash players that ever took a racquet for Yale University"? Unsurprisingly, members of the club, some of whom had seen the apparently healthy 36-year-old as recently as the previous Friday, were "shocked" by the news. And the culprit? According to the initial diagnosis of "Dr. James Ross of the Roosevelt Hotel," Clyde Martin "died of a sudden attack of acute indigestion" ? suggesting that either medicine or cooking has come a long way since 1926.
And these are only the top-of-the-page stories ? the ones that are truly consequential. I haven't even mentioned what you find if you let your eyes drift downward. "Mrs. Hall Invokes Aid of Portraiture." "National Leaders Express Optimism." And my favorite: "Warn Banks of Man With Nitroglycerin," in which the public is warned to be "on the lookout for a shabbily dressed, unshaven man of middle age, who is on the loose in the city with what police believe to be a bottle of nitroglycerin in his pocket. He is trying to obtain a large sum of money in order to 'have a good time' before he dies."
Entertaining? Sure. Front page news of lasting importance? From our historical perspective it may not appear so. Perhaps, had the man the shabby individual succeeded in blowing up a bank; or had Clyde Martin's death been revealed as an assassination that touched off a global conflict ? but no. Nothing came of these stories, and, as the very, very large proportion of events that make the front page of the Times or any other newspaper will do, they faded into obscurity. And one must ask: how many of the stories that decorate the front page of today's Times will fare any better?
To find the real story in this issue ? I will pretend that you are holding a copy in your hands ? I ask that you turn to page BR7. "BR," that is, as in Book Review. There you will find an article titled "Marital Tragedy" that begins as follows:
"Ernest Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, treats of certain of those younger Americans concerning whom Gertrude Stein has remarked: 'You are all a lost generation....'"
And there you go. Something of great consequence ? something that helped to change our culture and the world we live in ? did happen during October 1926 after all. For what would the world be like, had Hemingway never published his novels? Not only our literature, but our very ways of thinking would be different, in ways that it is impossible to know or describe in detail precisely because he did exist, he did publish his novels, and our minds and perceptions are, as a result, partly shaped by his work.
Of course, one can't blame the Times editors for not putting the story on the front page ? even though we can say, from our historical perspective, that that is precisely where it belonged. How were they to know? But one can commend them for covering the story. And the reviewer gets it exactly right in the review's last line, writing that the book is "unquestionably one of the events of an unusually rich year in literature." That's right, and it's just the point I want to stress today: a book is an event.
I emphasize this because today's newspaper editors ? editors of papers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and a great many others ? seem not to realize that the publication of a book is a newsworthy item, that a book is an event. They think, instead, that books are products, which is a wholly different way of looking at them. You see this if you listen to their justifications for why they have, in recent years, been devoting substantially less newspaper space to book reviews. The explanation is always pretty much the same: the books section is essentially an advertising section, and if only publishers would buy more advertising, they could give us larger, more thorough book review sections.
But this way of thinking is utterly, entirely wrongheaded. Book review sections are not advertising sections any more than the international news section is. (Imagine them saying: if only international governments would buy more advertising, we could cover what's going on in their countries.) Books are events. Books are news. Indeed the Hemingway example shows that literature is, to use Ezra Pound's famous phrase, "news that stays news."
Go to the library and get hold of a New York Times Book Review from three or four decades back: compare the Charles Atlas they used to bestow on us with the 98-pound literary weakling they put out today. Then check out the National Book Critics Circle's "Campaign to Save Book Reviews" for more information. (I also recommend Steve Wasserman's excellent recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, "Goodbye to All That.")
And most importantly, write to the editors of the papers you read and tell them how important books are to you, and how important they are to the culture. Tell them they're making a terrible mistake in thinking of books as products. Tell them that if they don't treat books as important, fewer young people will learn to regard them as important, which means fewer readers, which is (duh) bad for newspapers. Tell them ? a bit more diplomatically, perhaps, than I'm about to put it ? that if they are going to make their careers in the news business, they had better develop a bit more insight into what news really is.