The Weight of Words

The American Reader is going all-print.

What does that mean?

The website, which was previously home to online-only literary and cultural criticism, personal essays, experimental writing, and interviews, will be converted into an editors’ blog, which the editors will update with staff recommendations, short interviews, notices of events, and occasional audio and video features. Our “Day In Lettres” blog, featuring a daily letter from a major literary figure on the same date in the past, will be maintained. The intellectual sensibility of the website—weird but rigorous, playful but sincere, or else urgent and intervening—will continue in the print essays and criticism, and a number of our online writers will now be found in the print journal.

Why are we going all-print?

The Reader was founded on two beliefs. First, that there is still a place for print in publishing. That, in fact, younger generations, far from being anti-print, are ambidextrous with their media, using both print and digital platforms, and to different ends. We felt that people still respond to a beautifully printed object—and that the quiet, solitude, and time requested by such an object make for the best environment for encountering certain voices.

Second, that what was held up as American literature was no longer actually national. Manhattan had mistaken itself for America. New York publishing was championing a too narrow set of writers, reflecting largely one sensibility, and from one city. Literature’s decline from popular consciousness was, in part, self-inflicted, exacerbated by New York editorial ignoring not only the voices of writers but also the tastes of readers living across the country. This desire to seek out, encourage, and make space for a truly American literature was the origin of both our name and our logo, the blue stripe taken from a deconstructed American flag. (The name also reflects our concerns and commitments that must accompany this desire—education and national literacy, American history, the translation of literature, and an examination of the modern American state.)

Two years after our launch, the rapid increase in our print circulation, across the country, has given us faith that enough of you share these beliefs for us to turn our full attention to the aspect of our project that furthers most our founding mission.

Since we’ve made this decision, a passage from one of my favorite authors, Richard Rodriguez, has been on my mind. In Brown, Rodriguez describes his reaction to the death of one of his favorite authors, journalist Carl T. Rowan:

Hearing the news, I felt the sadness one feels when a writer dies, a writer one claims as one’s own—as potent a sense of implication as for the loss of a body one has known. Over the years, I had seen Rowan on TV. He was not, of course he was not, the young man who had been with me by the heater—the photograph on the book jacket, the voice that spoke through my eyes. The muscles of my body must form the words and the chemicals of my comprehension must form the words, the windows, the doors, the Saturdays, the turning pages of another life, a life simultaneous with mine.

It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present. His voice, mixed with sunlight, mixed with Saturday, mixed with my going to bed and then getting up, with the pattern and texture of the blanket, with the envelope from a telephone bill I used as a bookmark. With going to Mass. With going to the toilet. With my mother in the kitchen, with whatever happened that day and the next; with clouds forming over the Central Valley, with the flannel shirt I wore, with what I liked for dinner, with what was playing at the Alhambra Theater. I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.

It’s stayed with me, in part, because while not its focus, it describes an aspect of reading rarely discussed: its materiality. It’s something writers feel too, I think, why so many write by hand, with a certain kind of pen, on a certain type of paper; it’s too hard to write without movement, rhythm, touch. Is it too hard to read, too, without touch? Time? Solitude? Sometimes, some things.

I was at a lecture last fall by Rodriguez about his most recent book, a spiritual memoir, which investigates, among many other things, the weight of written words. He means weight not only figuratively, but also literally—the property of a thing located in time and space. (“The danger of weighted knowledge is literalism. The danger of weightless knowledge is relativism.”) He took the heavy hardcover from the table and dropped it to the floor—thunk.

The American Reader sits on your nightstand, slips in your bag, bends in your hand. It has weight.

The poetry, stories, and essays published within—carefully, caringly written, selected, and edited—ask for your time and attention. They ask that you abide in their presence, because hopefully they endure.

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