The death of literature part 11,274, from Saul Bellow

“From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that like the walled city or the crossbow, it was a thing of the past. And no one likes to be at odds with history. Oswald Spengler, one of the most widely read authors of the early ’30s, taught that our old tired civilization was very nearly finished. His advice to the young was to avoid literature and the arts and to embrace mechanization and become engineers.”

That’s from Saul Bellow’s “Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letters” for the New York Times’ Writers on Writing collection. Fortunately he didn’t listen to the various Spenglers of his day. I often find it amusing to read the various predictions of literature’s demise, which have so frequently been trumpeted in the 20th Century and now the 21st; Orwell does a good job with the same theme in his collected essays.

Although being wrong in the past doesn’t necessarily equate to being wrong in the present, the poor track records of both religious apocalypse and the demise of reading tend to make me skeptical of new claims about either.

A better press corps?

Two days ago I posted about CEOs’ libraries, which included one quote apparently made up by the reporter, Harriet Rubin: “Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars.” Mr. Lopez quickly responded to an e-mail query about the subject, and I’m copying his note in full:

That was a very controversial statement in that article and it’s only somewhat incidental that I never actually said it. What I said went more or less along the lines of this:

She: [After we had talked for a half an hour or so about books, book collecting, and book collectors…] So how much does it cost to put together a book collection, anyway?

Me: That’s an impossible question to answer. There are too many variables.

She: Right. I understand. So how much does it cost to put a book collection together?

Me: [sigh] There’s no way to say. All collections are different. [Now thinking of a bone I can throw her, even though it’s a stupid question…] Well, in a lot of collections, if the field is not too narrow, you find the following characteristics: there are a large number of books that pertain to the field that are relatively easy to acquire and therefore not very expensive. But there are a lot of them. Then there is also a much smaller number of books that are very scarce, very important or desirable, and very expensive. If you try to assemble a collection in a field where there are a lot of books, and you try to get all or almost all of the relatively accessible and not-very-expensive books, and you also try to get all or most of the not-easily-accessible and much-more-expensive books, you could very easily end up spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more.

She: Thank you. [Hangs up.]

I wouldn’t swear that that’s a verbatim transcript, but that’s pretty much how it went.

By the time the quote appeared (and I was in the boondocks of northwestern Argentina when article was printed and the controversy about that supposed statement erupted), I barely remembered talking to her. The giveaway, though, was “my” use of the word “impossible”: I doubt I’ve used that word once in the last 40 years. I just don’t talk, write, or think that way. So I took a lot of grief for having supposedly said that, but it was just another case of a writer getting what she (thought she) needed to make her story “work.” Joan Didion said it in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” that writers are always selling somebody out. She may not have been talking about misquoting per se, but it certainly fits this case.

A very reasonable response! The situation Mr. Lopez describes makes sense, and I apologize for my snarky comment yesterday: “How does Mr. Lopez define ‘serious?’ The answer might in part be ‘expensive,’ judging from his line of business: ‘We deal in rare books, specializing in modern literary first editions.'” That was undeserved, and I’m doubly impressed for the allusion to Joan Didion.

This incident relates to the bad- and wrong-press phenomenon I’ve seen covered elsewhere. Language Log has been finding misquotes and misstatements since I began reading it a few years ago, and they’re particularly keen on misused studies. Econoblogger and Economics Professor Brad DeLong has long (sorry, I couldn’t resist) been asking, “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have A Better Press Corps?” It’s a good if rhetorical question, and he’s compiled too many examples of professional journalist foolishness. The misquotes and bad science are particularly strange these days, because an army of interconnected bloggers can now point out examples of press speciousness or outright mendacity. When something doesn’t smell right, as happened with the fake quote attributed to Mr. Lopez, it’s relatively easy to find the truth.

To be sure, newspapers and magazines do an admirable job of getting most stories right most of the time, but it makes obviously ludicrous statements like the one attributed to Mr. Lopez all the more galling because I want to trust the media. When I can’t, I’m disappointed, and more likely to be skeptical next time.

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