Reading or Learning? (Arts & Letters)

Article excerpt

"Men of Letters: The Decline of 'Amateur Journalism"' by Benjamin Schwarz, in The Atlantic Monthly (July-Aug. 2002), 77 North Washington St., Boston, Mass. 02114.

In the United States, the phrase "literary journalism" seems almost a contradiction in terms, yet Britain can point to a long tradition in the field. Schwarz, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, explains that in the early 19th century, British literary journalism seized upon the book review as its primary medium. These reviews dominated the cultural scene, "largely defining the terms of debate on and discussion of political, religious, economic, scientific, historical, and biographical subjects as well as literature."

As Schwarz notes in this book review of his own--the book being Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement, by Derwent May--review-essays were strange creatures: "The book under review often served merely as a peg on which to hang a scintillating essay, and the reviewer was often far more intellectually distinguished than the book's author." Leading periodicals such as The Edinburgh Review, The Fortnightly Review, The Spectator, and The Economist were filled almost entirely with review-essays.

Reviews served a crucial function, for readers often lacked the time for scholarship yet needed a way of staying informed. …