critical eye

Brief Encounters

Short reviews of Out of the News, The Way the World Works: Essays, and The Stammering Century
November 1, 2012

Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis | By Celia Viggo Wexler | McFarland & Company | 195 pages | $40 paperbound

Celia Viggo Wexler left newspaper journalism in the 1980s for an unfashionable reason, motherhood. She did not return, but instead found compelling new ways to employ a journalist’s skills, becoming a writer/lobbyist for Common Cause and a lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. She has now gathered the stories of 11 journalists more or less of her generation—that is, some of the elite of the cohort that entered journalism in the 1970s and faced the seismic changes of the three subsequent decades. Like Wexler, they have moved on, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Some voluntarily left enviable positions with such high-profile employers as CBS and The New York Times. If the 11 have anything in common it is a feeling that their best work as journalists was being devalued. One of the most vivid profiles is that of David Simon, who fought with the new managers of his newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, about better ways to report on Baltimore’s underclasses; in the end, he went Hollywood and gained fame as creator of the HBO series, The Wire. Others had more complicated paths, landing here and there, always in search of opportunities that would permit them to use their talents more effectively. Some taught; some turned to nonprofit journalism; some became advocates of worthy causes. One, Chuck Lewis, founded the Center for Public Integrity and won a MacArthur fellowship. These stories leave the reader with the feeling that this was a group that mainstream journalism could ill afford to lose, but could not hold.

The Way the World Works: Essays | By Nicholson Baker | Simon & Schuster | 317 pages | $25

Among those who love old newspapers, Nicholson Baker is known as the chief demonstrator against the wholesale destruction by libraries of millions of tons of newsprint, replaced by microfilm or scans, which were a paltry substitute for the real thing. Baker’s Double Fold, published in 2001, sounded the alarm. This new collection contains two updates: That same year, he delivered remarks on the merits of preserving paper, printed here, at the dedication of a new Duke University library storage facility. Three years later, Duke accepted for storage about 50 tons of newspaper files Baker had acquired, and there they remain in their original state. He offers also the introduction to The World on Sunday (2005), a rich collection compiled by Baker and his wife, Margaret Brentano, of color reproductions created from what he believed to be the last intact file of Joseph Pulitzer’s Sunday World. The rest of this collection addresses a variety of other topics, among them the licentious New York press of the 1840s, Wikipedia, Kindle, and violent video games. Not least, he reprints his fine essay on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, first published in CJR in July/August 2009 and titled here “Defoe, Truthteller.”

The Stammering Century | By Gilbert Seldes | Introduction by Greil Marcus | New York Review of Books | 414 pages | $18.95 paperbound

In introducing an earlier reprint edition of The Stammering Century, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. placed the critic and editor Gilbert Seldes among the gifted amateurs (non-academics) of the 1920s—Bernard de Voto, Constance Rourke, Lewis Mumford and others—who brought a fresh temper and spirit to the writing of American history. This 1928 work, newly issued by New York Review of Books, offers 21st-century readers many episodes of mordant amusement. Seldes (1893-1970), younger brother of the famed journalist George Seldes, did not set out to write the conventional story of the American march through the 19th century. Taking his title from a phrase coined by Horace Greeley to characterize the incoherence of the age, he asserts early that this is an account of the underside or backside of history, the religious fevers, utopian colonies, paths to perfection, inspired by “sour fanatics, crackbrained enthusiasts, monomaniacs, epileptics, and mountebanks.” Some of the names are remembered today—the Alcotts, Mary Baker Eddy, the Beechers among them—but who remembers the murderous Robert Matthews (“Matthias”), P. P. Quimby, or Lorenzo Dow? Had he been given the opportunity, H. L. Mencken might have used this crowd as fodder for a mighty polemic. But Seldes lets them speak in their own words, be they fools or sages. Greil Marcus concludes in his introduction that the work “remains a bible, a grand genealogy of American dreaming in action.”

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.