Although the decline of newspaper book review sections is just a sub-set of the larger sadness of the overall demise of newspapers, I was struck by the recent report of the mighty Los Angeles Times Book Review being stripped down to practically nothing.
I haven’t read it for years, but this news made me think about a time when book reviews in that paper were important to me.
Something over 40 years ago (wow!), I was an undergraduate at UCLA fortunate enough to take a bunch of courses from Robert Kirsch, who was then both the Book Review Editor of the LA Times and the daily book critic. Kirsch wrote six daily book reviews a week and edited the Sunday section. He also taught a course or two each quarter at UCLA, assigned more writing than any professor I ever had, and put more editing and commentary marks on the stuff we turned in than any other professor did too. He also clearly had plenty of time to have fun.
Obviously, there had to be a trick to it.
Kirsch explained to one of our classes that he had invented a speed-reading technique for himself in the early 1950s before he had ever encountered Evelyn Wood. The key, Bob said, was that you had to stop “silently reading aloud”, effectively articulating each word to yourself (as we all did, he said) as you processed it. He said if you put your hands to your throat you could feel yourself doing it. Avoiding that, he claimed, allowed you to pull in whole sentences and paragraphs at a time.
I just didn’t get it. It didn’t make any sense to me. I always read “word by word” and still do. But Kirsch read at a speed that I would call “scanning” (his eyes moved over the page) and he turned pages like a person who was looking for something that would stand out. (Let’s say you were looking for a series of capitalized words on a written page: “United States of America” or “American Civil Liberties Union” and think about how fast you could scan text and be sure you weren’t missing that.) But he remembered everything he’d read.
(Years after I left school, I met my wife who reads in these chunks the way Kirsch did. I always finished every reading test I ever took before time was up; Martha reads narative books about 2 or 3 times as fast as I do. She’s not as fast as Kirsch and she didn’t consciously “teach herself” the way he did, but she also does what I just can’t get: she reads in chunks, rather than word-by-word.)
Kirsch loved writing those daily book reviews and teaching the classes, but he hated the admin involved in being the book editor. So around the time I graduated from college, he took his best student from UCLA, Digby Diehl, and made him the Book Review Editor. (I am deliberately not checking this story with Digby — with whom I have a friendship that goes back to those days — prior to posting but I’m going to tell Digby about the post and invite to “revise and extend” my remarks as he sees fit as a comment.) Kirsch once, in a weak moment, said I was the best (or maybe he said “one of the best”; I didn’t have hearing aids yet back then but needed them) student he’d had, but I wasn’t old enough to be considered for the job. I wouldn’t have been as good at it as Digby was anyway.
The first course I took from Kirsch was on “Criticism” and the first assignment he gave us was to write “Your Critical Credo.” What are your rules for yourself when you write criticism of literature or movies or art? What are your standards? This was typical of Kirsch, assigning you something that forced you to think about how you think.
Another assignment that stands out in my memory was a movie review we did for his class. Bob arranged for us to see a movie screening of a Campus Christian Crusade film called “Up with People”. We saw the film in an evening screening and had to turn it our reviews at class the next day, just like real film critics!
A number of us stayed in touch with Bob Kirsch after our college years. I remember an assignment he had in London in the early 1970s and recall his pretty and youthful and blonde wife wearing a leather skirt she had bought on Carnaby Street in London (according to Bob.) We lost him far too young; he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in the late 1970s. Even the nature of his death, as it was told to me, bore his special stamp. When he got the diagnosis, he and his wife moved to a beach cottage in Santa Barbara where he lived out his few remaining weeks without treatment or any fanfare. He accepted reality. I think that was a hallmark of his intellect.
Of course, the realities of Kirsch’s time didn’t include disappearing newspapers and disappearing book review sections covering a disappearing trade book business. But I can only begin to imagine what he would have done with digital reading. Plenty, I’ll bet.