For a couple of decades now, I’ve reviewed books for our newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It’s a wonderful gig. For one, I get paid to read—I mean! But even better, it forces me to read in a responsible, accountable, un-lazy way, which is not, trust me, true all the time.
How it works is: I go downtown to the paper’s offices, where Book Angel Karen Long ushers me into the book room, packed floor to ceiling with galleys whispering, “Read me! No, read me!” I stand on a stool; I crouch low; I pull out book after book, trying to decide if I’m qualified to judge it, and if I’m likely to enjoy it. Because, contrary to what people think, writing a bad review is a nasty, unsavory experience. (Okay, okay, now and then it can be wickedly satisfying).
Karen decides which of my choices best fit her pages, gives me deadlines, and off I go. And nearly every time I write a review, someone tells me—in Zagara’s grocery store, at Cumberland Pool, in Phoenix Coffee—that they’ve read it. They almost always say they’d like to read the book, even if I’ve written a mixed review.
I’m no Oprah, bless her holy name, but I love knowing people not only read reviews but remember and think about them. And Cleveland lover that I am, I’ve been exorbitantly proud that our paper continues to publish original, not syndicated, book reviews, especially since there’s no ad revenue to be gained from them, the way there is with film.
No surprise, the Plain Dealer has been in financial trouble for years now, and things just got way worse. Its absentee-landlord, Advance Publications, has already made huge cuts and recently announced even more—not just cuts, really, but death blows. At best, it seems, the paper will go to three days. Subscriptions will dwindle, and it will die.
This is a pitifully common story these days, but the New York Times saw fit to cover it recently. The Times fought off its own obsolescence with a wonderful, subscription website, but according to Plain Dealer reporters, corporate Advance won’t let them do the same.
I’m from the days when you found your job and apartment in the newspaper. My family got not one but two papers a day. Every night my father would come home from the city with a copy of the NY Post, which my mother called a rag and I loved to peruse for the juicy columns and sexy cartoons. But things change. I get it. I’m actually a stalwart foe of nostalgia, yet it’s been painful to watch our local paper shrink. Sometimes I think I’m picking up a single section only to realize I’m holding the whole edition. I can’t imagine how we’re going to get our local news in the future. There’s a big difference between a trained journalist and a blogger. There’s an ongoing gap between what the NY Times (to which we also subscribe) deems news and what affects us daily in the Rust Belt. Last year the PD unearthed and relentlessly pursued a story of massive political corruption. It’s doing the same right now with what looks like a case of police homicide. Who’s going to do that in the future? Don’t even mention TV “news”.
I’m going down to the book room today. I’m expecting a funereal atmosphere, but I’m really looking forward to giving some very smart, dedicated people hugs.