Goodbye, my friends -- it's been a delightful, bookish decade


In the last nine and a half years, I have written, among other articles long and short, some 430 "On Books" columns on these pages. Nevermore. Yesterday, I retired from the Baltimore Sun.

In the first column, published Feb. 5, 1995, I wrote of my ambitions for these pages: "If you favor certainty, flee, now. Avert the eyes of your impressionable children. Predictability is the dirge of the marginally living mind. If you yearn for reflection and rumination, look elsewhere. For reflections, I recommend the space above the washbasins at the nearest public toilet. For rumination, buy a cow. The writers and subjects of these articles will seek to serve two purposes. One is to provoke: Ecstasy, anger, tendentiousness, introspection, fear, ambition, befuddlement, whatever. There must be passion. The other element is the joy of language."

I have not met those demands with every column, review and essay published here since that day. For my failings, forgive me. I have tried.

It has been a grand time. On the wall of the lobby of this newspaper's offices, there is a 1953 quotation from the Sun's most brightly shining star, H.L. Mencken: "... as I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings."

I have spent my life as a reporter, an editorial page editor, an executive editor, a columnist. I unwaveringly endorse Mencken's appraisal -- for all of those tasks. None has been more regal than these last almost 10 years.

The grand times are not over. For more than 45 years, at six newspapers and two magazines, grand times have been my living. I have traveled through much of the world and lived in New York, Tokyo, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, London and finally, now, Baltimore. I don't know how to stop. But I will not be here at The Sun, from which I take with me an indomitable inventory of friendships, professional challenges and inspirations, and fondness for a legendary newspaper that is in a process of change -- but which is, I am confident, immortal.

As is the nature of this work, few weeks have gone by that I would not happily have done what I was doing if I were not paid for it. It has been a wonderful life, less a job than something between a gift and a calling.

10,000 'unread'

In the last 10 years I have read -- for you, I like to think -- substantially more than 600 books with close care, taking notes and skipping not a paragraph. An additional 10,000 or so I have "unread" -- a term I use to mean spending about a half hour with a volume, dipping into it here and there in order to make judgments about it. From those examinations of 20 or so books a week, I have chosen a few for review, assigned them to reviewers whom I respect and trust and then edited their work. In all, we have thus published critiques of some 1,500 other books. In the "Arguments" on these pages, and the omnibus wrap-ups that we do here, we have referred to an additional 4,000 to 5,000 volumes.

But that has been a tiny sliver of the many wonderful -- as well as dreadful -- books that have come out in this decade. The people who keep track report that 175,000 new books were published in the United States last year -- up by tens of thousands from the year before. Yet literature is suffering what Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, calls "a general collapse in advanced literacy" -- with a 10 percent decline in reading in the U.S. from 1982 to 2002, including declines in every demographic category. I agree with Gioia that this "impoverishes both cultural and civic life" -- and worry with him about the consequences of an increasingly small-minded populace.

So if you would please me, read on. Read these pages, which now will be edited by Michael Ollove, a splendid writer and a man of keen tastes and rich personal culture. More yet, read books: Good books, serious books, absurd books, books that are outrageous, outraged and out of print -- but most of all, in print and provoking the passions and joy that I invoked here in February of 1995.

A deeply gratifying piece of the delight of this job has been involvement with readers. Some of you have written vigorously, challenging conclusions of mine. Others have been very flatteringly supportive. And if anyone has something to tell me as I end this job, I would be delighted to hear from you at P.O. Box 247, Wellsville, PA, 17365-0247.

I have decided that I won't decide what to do next for at least a couple of months, which already promise to be very busy, catching up with domesticities and putting things in order in the country house at Wellsville that my wife and I love.

Art changes

What do I love? Besides the most important people in my life? Above all, the beauties and excitements of the human mind at work -- exploration, discovery, the confrontation of pieties and certitudes. Artfulness. Only one explanation of the purpose of art has ever seemed sensible to me: Art forces the observer to perceive differently. The rest is ornamentation or entertainment, at best. Great paintings leave viewers seeing as they never did before. Artful literature makes its reader's mind work as it never did before. What you read is who you are. And, however old -- or young -- who you are is the future.

So lest I atrophy, I shall go on reading, though perhaps with a little lighter load. And I will be writing, certainly. In the few relatively brief times in my life when my days have not included writing seriously, I have never felt quite comfortable. Writing just what, I am not sure, though a half-dozen book ideas are rattling around in my head, and inescapably there will be controversies that will drive me to rage and to scribbling.

Watch out. I may come your way.

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