Saturday, February 24, 2007

When I was 16 years old and mowing lawns after school around Berkeley to make a little money, there were two publications that I always saw to it that I read regularly. One was The Nation, which I’ve been reading almost uninterrupted ever since. The other was the short-lived West Coast daily edition of The New York Times. Even the day after John Kennedy was assassinated, that paper found room on page one to note the deaths of Aldous Huxley & Edith Piaf.

I stopped reading the Times on a regular basis when they canned that particular edition, tho occasionally I would buy the Sunday Times &, when I taught at UC San Diego for a term in 1982, I picked up the habit again pretty much on a daily basis, since San Diego’s local choices for a paper came to Dreadful and Worse. For awhile, The Washington Post had a weekly edition that recapped its more significant stories with a fairly deep dive into its Sunday books section and I read that, balanced by a steady stream of progressive weeklies or monthlies: In These Times, Mother Jones, the Progressive, The Texas Observer, The American Prospect. I still read the last of these – it was, I found, the most reliable publication in America after 9/11 and the regular presence of Hal Meyerson, the best political columnist in America, doesn’t hurt. He’s worth reading the Washington Post for as well.

All of this is a preface to a response to the few readers who have steadily complained when I’ve placed links to The New York Times in particular amidst the various items of news and notes that I sometimes run here. When The New York Times came online on a regular basis, I resumed my daily perusal of its articles, and for all of the paper’s many faults – which could warrant a lengthy blognote all its own – it continues to be the best English-language newspaper in the world. When The Times went to a subscription basis online, I had no hesitation about signing up. It’s one of two papers to which I pay subscriptions for online access, the other being The Wall Street Journal, a paper I will stop reading the minute I retire from the day job. But The Times is for life, even if I should forever make fun of the fact that it doesn’t need to have comics because it already has its startlingly dreadful Sunday Book Review section, craven little toy of advertisers that that supplement happens to be. It really doesn’t matter that Thomas Friedman only thinks he’s an expert on foreign affairs or that David Brooks is mostly a buffoon – even tho he’s officially declared my little niche of Chester County (from whence Brooks came) to be “Paradise” – if you missed Ayub Nuri’s op-ed piece Friday before last on internalizing the Iraq war you missed a wonderful, if terribly sad, piece of writing. And an important one. It really is the paper of record, for all of its sins.

An annual subscription to the New York Times online runs me $49.95 per year and gives me significant access to the Times archives as well. If I want to read any one of the 80 articles that mentioned Ezra Pound prior to 1930, I can do so. My subscription comes with the right to download 100 such articles each month. Thus I can come across an unsigned piece from July 2, 1911, entitled Literary Notes from England, that begins

You may care to know that a young American poet, Mr. Ezra Pound, is in this coronation London season in pleasant favor with the “intellectuals” of Mayfair and Belgravia.

$49.95 per year compares with the $273 I pay annually for the Philadelphia Inquirer to be delivered to my door, the $514.80 that New Yorkers pay for daily delivery of the paper hardcopy (which does, by the way, include online access) or the $644.80 it would cost me to have the Times delivered to this Chester County, Pennsylvania address. Most newspapers today still come for free online, something I do expect to change over the next five years. Would I pay for the Inky, as we locals call our rag, online? Maybe not, or if I did it would be because I was dropping the hard copy. Of the other papers I read online more or less on a daily basis – the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Guardian of London (formerly Manchester) – only the Post has a shot of getting my money if it starts to charge for online access.

This is not because I really need to know that an anonymous Times writer once thought, in a somewhat condescending fashion, that Ezra Pound had not written any suitable “coronation verse” to mark the ascension of George V, but rather because I choose – as I have always chosen – to engage with the world at large, a process for which the Times is one – among many – useful tool.

I have concluded that any reasonable person who can afford internet access plus maybe 3 CDs (or two nights out at the movies with a friend or partner) per year can afford the Times online. So I am not going to note when I link to a piece in the Times with a little “subscription required” addendum or whatever. If you link to a site you cannot access, you ought to register that irritation internally at least. It’s not a distinction I would make with the Wall Street Journal – I don’t run links to its articles¹ – and I admit that I too find myself irked by those moments of access when I find myself cut off from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Economist or the counter-intuitively named Project Muse. I subscribed to the Chronicle when I was a college administrator, and would do so again if I worked in a school. And I find the idea of keeping intellectual discussion of contemporary (or other) literature behind lock & key at Project Muse all too clear a reason why debunking the idea that refereed journals and academic protocol have anything to do with poetry or poetics is a valid, even important project.

Would it be ideal if all content on the web were free? Yes, but it would be ideal too if all bookstores carried every book of poetry that is in print (maybe 40,000 titles in all), and if all poets had equal access to book publication. When that day comes, I’ll be the first in line singing The Internationale. But until then, it’s the real world I’m going to engage with, and I suggest you do too.


¹ There were articles in the WSJ over the past two weeks about the debate within Fisk University over whether to sell two paintings by Georgia O’Keefe & Marsden Hartley, a profile of the scholar who stands "at the summit of Auden scholarship" and a fun piece by Sharon Begley on baseball sabremetrics and received “wisdom.”