Kathleen Parker

People who read books are different from other people. They're smarter for one thing. They're more sensual for another. They like to hold, touch and smell what they read. They like to carry the words around with them -- tote them on vacation, take them on train rides and then, most heavenly of all, to bed.

They're also a dying breed. And newspapers, apparent signatories to a suicide pact, are playing ``Taps.''

The news that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has eliminated its book editor position -- causing much (BEG ITAL)Sturm und Drang(END ITAL) throughout the Southern literary community -- highlights the continuing demotion of books and literature in American culture. While an Internet petition circulates to reinstate Teresa Weaver as book editor, writers are expressing concern that they're losing their best vehicle for recognition.

Soon, who knows? Maybe we'll be burning books in the town square chanting: We don't need no dadgum books. We got Innernet porn 'n' satellite TeeVee! OK, so maybe the end of civilization isn't nigh, but the systematic gutting of culture from newspapers is symptomatic of a broadening illiteracy that bodes ill for the republic.

From a practical standpoint, it also makes no sense. Clue: People who read newspapers are also likely book readers. So why do newspaper editors and publishers think that killing one of the few features that readers might -- big word here -- READ is a smart move in an era of newspaper decline?

Whereas 10 years ago, there were 10 to 12 stand-alone book sections in the country, today there are only five: The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, The San Diego Union-Tribune and The New York Times. Other large papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have folded book pages into other sections of the paper.

Ironically, book publishers are partly to blame for the disappearing book sections, as they've cut advertising in print media. Instead, they prefer to spend on front-table book placement in stores that costs as much as $1 per volume and reportedly delivers more bang for the buck.

But where there are no ads, there are no book sections. Where there are no book sections, there are no reviews to send readers to the bookstore where, curiously, there are more books than ever -- 50,000 published annually. Something doesn't quite compute.

Judging from the sheer number of volumes, a visitor to any Barnes & Noble would think that Homo sapiens Americanus has his nose buried in a book most of his waking day. In fact, a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that fewer than half of Americans read literature.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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