Essays and Notable Articles

Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader

By posted at 7:30 pm on September 18, 2007 3

What if right now is the golden age of the book, or even the golden age of literary fiction? What if we are living in the golden age of reading, writing, and criticism? But all around us, the dominant trope of the day is death.

Is it possible that a decade of poor management at newspaper companies amid shifting media paradigms has led people to think that literature is on its deathbed? Are books dead? Is literature dead? Is criticism dead? Are we facing, as a panel hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review asks tonight, “The Case of the Vanishing Book Review?”

Speaking on a Literary Writers Conference panel a year ago Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, taking measure of the times, said,

Young people don’t read newspapers… The big reviews don’t have the impact that they used to, and I think that one of the things that I’m worried about and trying to figure out is what are we going to do, how’re we going to get people in the conversation about literary fiction, and I don’t know the answer… Barnes & Noble and Borders have wonderful selections of books, and they’re in communities that never used to have bookstores, but they don’t always have the same relationship with their customer that a local bookseller did, and what you used to be able to do with literary fiction was seed it within those local booksellers around the country, get them reading and talking about it.

He goes on to say, “The Internet is an obvious way to do it with community.” While Entrekin, if you read the rest of his remarks, is actually fairly optimistic, the rhetoric from many (and particularly from some of the National Book Critics Circle’s more vocal members) has centered on loss, even as the rush to fill the gap with not just blogs but with communities like LibraryThing and GoodReads has created a literary landscape that, while it may not serve the critical establishment, represents a net gain for anyone likes to read and to talk to other readers. In fact, some find being a reader right now to be genuinely exciting.

Back when I first started this blog, before it seemed possible to me that it could be anything more than a place to share some thoughts about books with some friends, I used to talk about something called “a trusted fellow reader.” These are the people whose book recommendations are sought out and with whom discussing books is as rewarding as reading them. When this formulation first occurred to me, I happened to be working at an independent bookstore, surrounded by trusted fellow readers among my coworkers and the store’s patrons. I left there in early 2004 and have spent my time since trying to recreate that dynamic here at The Millions. With much help from readers and contributors, I think we’ve succeeded. (In fact, our annual end of year series is an attempt to flood the zone, as it were, with trusted fellow readers.)

If anything is dead, it’s the so called “print vs. online” debate and the interminable series of panels discussing our dying newspapers. Symposiums and editorials aside, the reality is fluid; writers and readers and critics consume and create in both media with regularity, and the focus on an empty debate and on column inches may be keeping us from recognizing that there are now many trusted fellow readers at our fingertips. We are in the midst of a shift, maybe now a revolution, in national (and international) literary discussion, which has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open. Readers have fueled this shift, many critics and writers have joined in. We’re excited to be a part of it.

Further Reading: If you think that the disappearance of book reviews and book sections in newspapers is a result of anything more than a broken business model, read this. And, from the manifesto, an explanation of why we all need trusted fellow readers: “Given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy”





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3 Responses to “Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader”

  1. Alicia (Michigan)
    at 9:05 pm on September 18, 2007

    WOW! I got goose bumps when I read your post. As a 19-year old who loves to read, I feel I am in the minority these days. My friends don't pick up a newspaper or a novel…let a lone a textbook. They are too much into their cars, Xbox 360's and other junk.

    But I'm always looking for new (good) books to read. I just finished a new (AND CONTROVERSIAL) book called Solemnly Swear. My expectations were low (new release from first-time author Joe Porrazzo) but this new book delivered a knock-out punch! It started with a great hook (a witness to a Mob murder is trapped in his bomb-laden car). The story started fast, and seemed a little predictable, until the twists and red herrings delivered a page-turning frenzy like I haven't had in awhile. This mystery thriller came with a huge payoff at the end that I never saw coming. Well written…well edited…this one's the sleeper of the year! Here's the info if you want to check it out:

    http://www.joeporrazzo.com/

    Thank you for raising the issues that so many young people today don't want to hear…of course, I don't remember ever sending a letter by snail mail…ooops.

    alicia (Michigan)

  2. Simon Quicke
    at 8:36 am on September 19, 2007

    Reading is still big business if you are writing one of the books that gets the backing of oprah winfrey or Richard and Judy and then gets stocked in its millions in supermarkets. The problem is that not all of that stuff is good and people seem to think that watching a television or film adaption is an easy way to catch up on the classics. They don't know what they are missing!

  3. Laurie
    at 2:08 pm on September 23, 2007

    Regarding your annual end-of-year recap by Millions readers and contributors that occurs about a week before year's end, those of us who want to see the entire year's reading included (and who manage to squeeze in another book or two during that final week of December) wish you'd push the recap to the first week of January! Okay, maybe that's just me making that wish…

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