Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gentleman of Letters

For the last three years, most of my mornings’ caffeine shot has been Arts And Letters Daily, but on 28th December 2010, I saw a black masthead on the site. The site’s founder Denis Dutton breathed his last. This was my “where were you when Michael Jackson died” moment.

This was the very site that opened my eyes to a plethora of world-class writers and amazing pieces of writing. After spending a couple of months at the desk of a newspaper, this particular Oscar Wilde quote was ringing in my ears: “Journalism is unreadable and no one reads literature.” Time was ripe for the most sophisticated deus ex machina:

Modeled on an 18th century newspaper format, Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, started aldaily in 1998. For the uninitiated, I’ll try to describe the site: The site is divided into three sections, ‘Articles of Note’, ‘New Books’ and ‘Essays and Opinion’ and, six days a week, one link is uploaded to each section. On the left-hand side there’s another section called Nota Bene (Latin for “note well”). This might be seen as the site’s equivalent of tabloidish news, which could easily walk into New Yorker’s pages.

Forget the paywalls, there’s a lot of material out there to be read on the Internet. How do you rummage through this midden to spend a couple of hours of your day reading something intellectually stimulating? Aldaily condenses its three links into a tweet-size introduction and lets you make the decision if you want to read it or not. In a way, aldaily is a precursor to Twitter’s 140-characters. Right from 1998, Dutton and his small but able team have been giving links preceded by just the right kind of tantalising text. Sample this: “When her daughter died, Edith Piaf slept with a man to pay for the burial. The melancholy grit of Piaf’s voice was hard-earned.” That was good enough to let me decide that I’m going to spend the next twenty minutes on reading the piece.

It’ll be unfair to lump aldaily along with other news aggregators like Browser or Utne or Longform. If an earthquake takes place in Japan, aldaily will give a reflective piece after a week rather than flashing the news on the site on the day of incident. Dutton’s refined tastes used to reflect in the kind of pieces he used to handpick. He is a connoisseur of classical music, world cinema, classic literature and also dismissive of technology and geopolitical conflicts. Through aldaily I came across magazines that I would otherwise always be oblivious to. Dutton never gave much thought to the publications. A New York Times article will have a piece from Dublin Review of Books giving it company. In fact, I tell my friends that “you read only aldaily and there’s absolutely nothing that you wouldn’t know about this world”.

Dutton will be sorely missed.


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