The Washington Post: Our "Local" Paper
On Feb. 15, the Washington Post printed its last Sunday "Book World" section. One week later, it premiered a combined Outlook-book review section, with a somewhat expanded book review section the following Wednesday.
The Post claimed this was "good news" for Book World fans, and I guess it's not all bad news. Ron Charles' reviews on Wednesday are as lively and intelligent as they ever were for the old "Book World"; Jonathan Yardley continues to publish his periodic essays on once-popular or unfairly forgotten books (his most recent essay was on Irwin Shaw and "The Young Lions"); the Monday mystery-thirller reviews of Patrick Anderson continue to appear every Monday, and on Friday we can still count on Carolyn See's always-delightful, wide-ranging reviews of current fiction and non-fiction. There are even book reviews on Saturday now, which never happened before "Book World" was laid to rest.
And yet I cannot help but feel that the role of both books and ideas has been much diminished at The Washington Post. On Sundays before the change, we could count on sixteen pages of incisive literary commentary in "Book World" and eight pages of inslightful political and cultural essays in "Outlook." Those were always the sections of the Sunday paper that accompanied my first cup of coffee that morning. Now, in the combined section, we have five pages of political essays and three pages of reviews. How the Post could consider this an even trade, or hope to maintain its reputation as a national paper of record after this, can only be considered an exercise in self-delusion. Blended together, "Outlook" and "Book World" look gray and unprepossessing; though it would be unfair to say the quality of the writing has diminished, the current presentation of the essays and reviews makes them appear much less significant. (That isn't even considering their reduced number.) With "Book World" ceasing publication and the San Francisco Chronicle poised to go under, this means that the New York Times will be the only newspaper in the country with a dedicated Sunday book section. Gore Vidal once said the United States is about as signficant culturally as Albania; why are the nation's newspapers so hellbent on proving him right?
The Post complained that "Book World" hemorrhaged money for years, and that publishers just weren't buying ads. Maybe so, but I know a lot of people on the verge of canceling their Post subscriptions for the want of "Book World." Does the paper's management really consider that a good trade?
When I was a kid in Ohio, the commentary and book review sections in the Sunday papers were always combined, and always uninteresting. I guess the Post wants to be Washingtonians' "local" paper, in more ways than one.