On April 26, The Courier-Journal will publish its final book review page, ending a tradition that has been part of the newspaper’s DNA since at least the Roaring Twenties. I know. I was a major part of it.
Before anyone unleashes a torrent of criticism on the current management at Sixth and Broadway, let me stop you. Louisville has been among the leading newspapers to celebrate regional authors and their works for decades. Gannett, which acquired The Courier-Journal in 1986, has cherished that heritage, and through its ongoing support of the Kentucky Author Forum, has demonstrated its strong support for reading and writing. This isn’t a Bingham era vs. Gannett issue.
The problem is far more complicated. In the past 10 years the implosion of the newspaper business, as we knew it, combined with the explosion of Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers, has thrown publishing into a cyclone. Traditional book reviewing, and the newspaper pages that featured those reviews, have been upended. Beloved sections like those published by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have been downsized. Even The New York Times Book Review—the last remaining example of what was once more standard—is faltering, and the choices of books many Sundays are baffling. The Post continues to run excellent reviews, but they are buried in the Sunday opinion section, and finding them online is indeed a challenge.
But then there were the regional book pages. Like the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had a dependably strong collection of reviews that celebrated Southern and Western writers. Or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which did the same. And the Boston Globe, which managed to corral some of the best Bay State writers (of which there are many) to submit reviews. And on it went. The Des Moines Register, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The Miami Herald, and our own Lexington Herald-Leader.
Last week, I was in New York and was able to make a final visit to one of the great international bookstores, Rizzoli’s, once located in Rome and Fifth Avenue, New York. In the last 25 or so years, Rizzoli’s has been in a “new” home, on West 57th Street, a block from Fifth Avenue and a stone’s throw from Bergdorf-Goodman. This is now prime real estate, not just in New York, but in the developed world. So the owners gave Rizzoli’s its notice, told them to move out, and they are looking at potential locations that are less expensive. The mood in the store was akin to a very elegant funeral parlour on the day of an important person’s death. All of the books—three stories of them—were on sale. Major markdowns. But what was really on markdown was the value of books as symbols of our culture, our aspirations, and of our democracy.
In midtown Manhattan, there were once bookstores everywhere. Big ones, middle-sized ones, and little holes in the wall, where treasures were always to be found. This was in the era before e-mails reminded you that today this major work would be published and you’d better order it here for same-day delivery. Before you know it, drones will be landing on our doorsteps.
After I left Rizzoli’s, I took a cab to my hotel, but on the way we passed the site of the historic Scribner’s Bookstore at 597 Fifth Avenue. In the windows where the new books of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and others once were showcased, Sephora, a cosmetics concern, had lurid window displays. From Dr. T.J. Eckleburg to eye liners.
Back to my assignment. I have been asked to give a tribute to The Courier-Journal’s book page, and I am privileged to do that. I turned to two of the most respected editors and contributors to that page, Sallie Bingham (noted author, former book editor and philanthropist) and Charles Whaley (former education editor, longtime book and theater reviewer and notable book collector) to offer their appraisals.
Sallie Bingham: “I don’t know who was book editor before Mother took over; I thought she perhaps initiated the page.” She didn’t. As early as 1920 The Courier-Journal had a stand-alone book section. But Mary Bingham took over in the 1930s, and her mark remained on the page through all of the years when I was editor.
“The great worth of the page as far as I am concerned—and remember that I sometimes had two full pages on Sunday!—was to keep alive the notion that Louisville was a cultural center, with Actors Theatre, the Orchestra, etc.—not just some lost midwestern town. And of course it was such a pleasure to assemble a stable of local reviewers, many true book lovers who had no other outlet for their enthusiasm, and to ensure that we did NOT hold up the best sellers and gave even small press books good coverage, particularly those by local writers.”
Charles Whaley: “The book page was a special thing that made The Courier-Journal stand apart from ordinary newspapers. I always read it and relished reviewing for it from that time in the 50s when book editor Mary Bingham offered an assignment to a young reporter happy to earn a few extra bucks. Pardon the nostalgia but I do wish the show had gone on.”
And, Charles, so do I. I want to pay tribute to all of the wonderful people who wrote for our pages, or whose books were reviewed there, over the decades. And to the editors: Mary Bingham, Shirley Williams, Sallie Bingham, me, Scott Coffman.
We never made any money from writing book reviews. But we got those gorgeous, pristine, review copies. And, even better, galley proofs. Just to be able to read a book before anyone else, well, that was the greatest gift.
I commend The Courier-Journal for keeping the book page alive for as long as it has. I commend David Hawpe for understanding, way back in 1989, that we had a role to perform. And I hope that all the authors in Kentucky, Indiana and points nearby discover a new place where their work can be appraised and appreciated.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
He was also the newspaper’s book editor from 1989 to 2012.
Read his past WFPL commentaries here.