January 13, 2011

more» Denis Dutton



You may have missed the news. I certainly did. One of the great entrepreneurs of online journalism and the intellectual life passed away last week, and we barely blinked.  I'm speaking, of course, of Denis Dutton, the founder and editor of Arts and Letters Daily (ALD).

Dutton was an innovator in his use of technology: ALD was started in 1998, before anyone actually thought the internet could be a place for serious intellectual discussion. Every day ALD was updated with the best the internet had to offer in the way of essays and book reviews--or, as the masthead says: "philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, and gossip."  Each new article was introduced with a "teaser"--a no-more-than 25 word introduction to the work that--rather than serving as a summary--grabbed you by making you wonder what in heaven's name was going on.

He was, by all accounts, a warm, funny, erudite man, and humble.  I can't imagine that he didn't relish his position as curator to the world of ideas vis a' vis the Internet--but he didn't seem to flaunt it.  He was also extremely particular about the look of ALD; inspired by the 18th Century Broadsheet, it has four simple columns, a soft yellow background, regular serif type, and very few ads.

The obits and memorial essays have all been a delight to read.  Each young journalist or scholar relays how his little article or new journal was singled out with one of Dutton's impossible to resist teasers, and had 20,000 new readers. The obits/memorials I like the most were:
WSJ, which said: Most readers knew of Denis Dutton—if they knew of him at all—as the creator of a popular website, Arts & Letters Daily. To writers and editors, he was an influential arbiter of culture to whom we appealed to help promote our work. The reality is that he did more for serious cultural criticism than any other figure in the Internet age. Dutton's life was rich and varied—he was, often concurrently, a professor, philosopher, writer, editor and entrepreneur. But it is for his website, launched in 1998, that he will be remembered.

+ Slate, which describes Dutton more personally: Denis was a very sly, very funny, supereducated, and widely allusive lunch companion. He struck me as a natural bon viveur, someone who delighted in talking smack about those not present. His eye gleamed differently from other humanities professors I'd known, his shoulders lacked the obligatory apologetic slump. When our lunch ended, he insisted I Town Car it out to Kennedy Airport with him to keep our conversation going. (No worries, he made sure the car, gratis, returned me to Manhattan.) Art and pleasure and the honest buck were in no ways distinct enterprises for him. Furthermore, he had been a liver: He had passed through the Peace Corps in South India and studied the sitar with Pandarung Parate, who had been a student of Ravi Shankar's. He appeared to exist for classical music, was an impassioned advocate for public radio, and fancied himself a one-man scourge upon pompous writing.

+ New York Review of Books: say this in admiration. Dutton’s genius lay not in his philosophy, but in his capacity to provoke intelligently. Look at him speaking at a TED conference last year, and you see not only a thinker, but also a charmer, a gentle bruiser, an ironist. Even more than an intellectual, he was an intellectual entrepreneur. ...At ALD, he found his relative advantage not in the production of fine writing, but in the boutique retailing of it, to the benefit of everyone: writers, readers, Dutton himself.

Speaking of those little 25 word teasers, I have a whole pile of them I've been meaning to get to for some time now:
+ What makes music sad? Most people jump to "minor key" as the answer. But singer and lyrics can mean more than we realize... more

+ Traditional desserts - cake, pudding - are being eclipsed by peculiar blends of sweet and savory. Parmesan ice cream, anyone?... more

+ Paul Theroux is 69, a good age to begin an autobiography. But after 500 words, he stopped with a realization: He can't be trusted to tell the truth about himself... more

+ Benjamin Franklin thought it an abominable practice, our incessant verbing of nouns. But we can't help ourselves: Texting, friending, parenting, bookmarking... more

+ Fat Kat had a knack for guns, drugs, and gangs; also, it turned out, for being a prison librarian. He helped fellow inmates connect to the world... more

+ "I have no tendency to be a saint," John Henry Newman said, in words that were part of his own self-outing... more

+ Art is beauty, expression, and energy in a form that emerges in its own time and on its own terms, says James Panero. So is the frenetic life of the web compatible with decent art criticism?... more

+ With Amazon, the publishing industry is now beholden to a single, profit-obsessed company. What happens when you sell a book like it's a can of soup?...more

+ Thelonius Monk's audiences heard music that was, to their worldly sensibility, better than a miracle: not just astonishing, it was believable too... more

Wow...that's a lot of reading to catch up on.  Get to it, M.

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