On one level, Arts & Letters Daily operates simply as a Web site providing links to other Web sites, a system that's also used for spreading information about everything from movies to hotel accommodations. But that's only the format. The content makes Arts & Letters Daily unique in cultural history. It's an engrossing magazine that only the Web could have spawned -- cheap, fast, smart and full of surprises.
Telling people about it, I sometimes say it's an intellectual Reader's Digest (except that it doesn't condense the articles). It sounds easy to produce, but after my first few online visits I realized that putting it together involves imagination, energy, critical judgment and intense curiosity. Denis Dutton, the editor, invented it as a response to cybernetic chaos. He compares the Web to an Australian goldfield, covered with mountains of low-grade ore. Finding the gold on the Web calls for careful sifting.
Dutton is an American who teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and also edits Philosophy and Literature, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He conceived A&LD when organizing online discussions among readers and writers of Philosophy and Literature.
A&LD went online in September, 1998, in an elegant text-only format that mimics the broadsheets they read in 18th-century London coffee houses. The impression it's made in 40 months or so demonstrates that there are ways the Web can serve the intellectual world better than print. One way is speed. The magazine's motto, Veritas odit moras, from Seneca, means "Truth hates delay." Articles that used to take weeks to travel across continents now make the journey in a twinkling. A newspaper writer produces a new idea in London on Tuesday, the editors at Christchurch spot it Wednesday online, and that night I'm reading it in Toronto.
The Web has decentralized the control of ideas, as A&LD proves. A few years ago the exchange of opinions and theories had to be managed by people living in great metropolitan centres, the intellectual world's version of imperialism. But with the Web it can be done anywhere. The idea of Christchurch, New Zealand, as the thought-control centre of the universe has both charm and originality.
Something else stamps A&LD as a product of the Web: Because the articles it selects are already offered free online, A&LD doesn't need to negotiate copyright or pay royalties. Pre-Web, producing such a connector-publication on paper would have been impossible. The New Republic, for example, would never have allowed its articles to be reprinted the day after their original appearance. But it seems entirely natural on the Web, since The New Republic and hundreds of other publications have their material already in cyberspace, just waiting to be located.
One part of A&LD connects us to a multitude of newspapers, magazines and radio services, as well as a list of columnists so ecumenical it encompasses Noam Chomsky and Mark Steyn. But that's peripheral to the real work: pointing us toward new and valuable articles and essays.
Dutton and his colleagues add fresh material six days a week. When a new item goes on, it starts at the top of one of the columns, then begins sliding down the page over the next few days until finally it slips off into the archives. On any given day there are about 80 articles, most of them serious and substantial: Wole Soyinka's lament over Nigeria's collapse into tyranny, Martha Nussbaum's philosophical analysis of emotions and narrative, the meaning of The Plague by Albert Camus, the pros and cons of forgiving the debts of poor countries.
A&LD loves historical and cultural surprises when they are well grounded. One recent introduction to an article says: "Was foot binding really so bad? Were Chinese women morons and their men perverts? How far are bound feet from nipple rings and tongue studs?" Dutton loves challenging conventional views. One blurb reads: "Oprah Winfrey? Compared to the whining, spoiled, conceited snots of the high-art literary world, she's an exquisite, classy lady."
On crucial events, Dutton assembles a range of opinion. He knows that when an important figure dies, we want to read more than one obituary. Recently A&LD marked W.G. Sebald's death by linking us to six substantial obits and an interview with him; it treated the recent deaths of Ken Kesey, the novelist, and Ernst Gombrich, the art historian, in much the same way. Dutton also knows we want to read more than one opinion on a major new book. He provided us with three articles each on Saul Bellow's and Alice Munro's recent collections.
For writers, appearing on A&LD has startling consequences (it's happened to me a few times). The e-mail address that many papers run at the bottom of articles long ago intensified the relationship between writers and readers, but A&LD adds another dimension. Sometimes, if the A&LD editors don't tell you they have added your piece to their site, you learn about it by getting an e-mail from someone in Helsinki or Johannesburg.
In December, Jeannie Marshall wrote a National Post piece about reading anxiety, the feeling that it's impossible to keep up with what we want to read or feel we should. After A&LD included that piece, e-mails began pouring into Marshall's computer from all over the world, maybe 100 in all. It was the perfect article for A&LD, whose entire audience likely suffers reading anxiety at least sometimes. She heard from university professors in England, a policeman in New York and a 14-year-old girl who was relieved to know that others shared her own uneasiness. A message from some unidentified location and person contained only one sentence: "Do you think I should read Proust?" Jeannie Marshall of course said yes.
The London Observer once called A&LD the best site on the Web; certainly it's the best I know. Because I have it installed as the page that pops up when I switch on Netscape, it's the one item that gets at least a glance from me every morning. If I had to express in a phrase what I love most about the World Wide Web, that phrase would be Arts & Letters Daily.