State of the Arts/Literary Arts. This third installment in a series of occasional round-table chats on the arts brings together Monitor writer Melvin Maddocks, book editor Thomas D'Evelyn, Home Forum editor Maggie Lewis, and feature editor Roderick Nordell. Pages on performing arts (July 22) and media arts (Aug. 21) appeared earlier. A future page will focus on visual arts.
Nordell: Some people seem incapable of coming into a literary editor's office without ``har-harring'' and saying, ``Have you read any good books lately?'' Has that ever happened to you, Tom? D'Evelyn: It happens all the time.Skip to next paragraph
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Nordell: What do you say?
D'Evelyn: I say, ``Have you read the Monitor lately?'' When you think that something like 90,000 books are published every year, we don't review that many. So we try to select good books. If there's a terrible book that needs to be pointed out, we might run a short review.
Nordell: Among those 90,000 books, the relatively few of general interest seem to put into printed form the very kinds of things that people are enjoying in the competing media -- the TV, radio, and films that were supposed to drive out reading.
Maddocks: I looked at a nonfiction best seller list today. Of the 15 titles, eight of them connect to television. The only tie-in used to be that a book was being made into a movie. But now TV turns itself into a kind of accomplice of books, and you have things like the Jane Fonda exercises coexisting as videocassette and book. Of course, now we have the reading cassettes, too. You read by cassette, so there's a sense in which the old kind of discrete identity of the book having a special audience, as being apart from other audiences, or really having the whole audience, is gone.
Nordell: So we listen to books, and we look at books, but we don't read books?
D'Evelyn: The fact that the number of titles published annually doubled between '80 and '85 is probably explained by the discovery of a new market. Because when the chain booksellers started to build in the malls, they discovered shoppers who had never been in bookstores but who would wander through now, because they had just been buying Levi's or something. So the nonreading book, or the self-help book, or the picture book, I think probably accounts for quite a proportion of that extra market. I think sociologists are saying that reading is becoming an elitist activity.
Nordell: But if it's in shopping malls, that doesn't sound elitist.
D'Evelyn: But we're trying to distinguish between kinds of reading. If you look at numbers, and bottom lines, publishing is not necessarily in a bad way.
But if you look at the kind of product, it certainly has changed, in that the serious book for reading by you alone, with a book in your lap, those kinds of books aren't necessarily selling more than they did five years ago.
Nordell: Maggie, in The Home Forum you're often carrying essays referring to books, or carrying excerpts from books. Do you have any sense of response to those things?
Lewis: Just from the number of essays that come in about reading. Maybe the essayists are people who are writing already, so it's a different group. But there are a lot of people reading and thinking about it, and the back and forth between the writer who's writing about a book and his experience is very alive. The response from the readers when they read that is also alive.
Nordell: Any examples?
Lewis: The most striking example recently is Doris Peel's essay about rereading Alan Paton's novel on his land of South Africa, ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'' And thinking about the response to the book in the '40s when it came out -- the letters from South Africa that were both furiously negative and sort of positive, but shocked at what this book showed them. She goes on and talks about a South African she met who had read that book, an Englishwoman living in South Africa for whom that book had really changed her life. To me, it's a wonderful thing, because it's not just sticking to a book. It's looking at a book, and then looking at the world, and then looking back at the book and her own response. And a reader just told me she read the essay, went out and bought ``Cry, the Beloved Country,'' and read the book that night.