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A Sad Day for Eggheads: Death of Arts & Letters

October 12, 2002|JULIA KELLER | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Until last Monday, the average professor's morning might go something like this: Rise, dress, drink coffee, sit down at the computer and call up aldaily.com.

Arts & Letters Daily was a must-read for about 60,000 academics each day. The Weblog--or blog, as the genre now is known--listed witty summaries of each day's top stories in the world of ideas, gleaned from newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals published around the world.

On Monday, however, when eager-fingered eggheads typed in the URL, the page that popped up contained not a compendium of smart, funny summaries and links to online enlightenment, but a cruelly curt epitaph that read, in part:

"The magazine Lingua Franca and its parent company University Partners LLC filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.... We understand the assets of University Business, including this Web site, are to be auctioned in New York City on Oct. 24...."

Thus with a few lines of legalese came the death of a blog beloved by highbrows and by anyone, really, who appreciates incisive articles on a variety of cutting-edge topics from Freud to French fries, from evolution to Elvis.

Denis Dutton, the man who created the site in 1998 and who, until this week, still toiled over it each morning, said his brainchild was caught up in the legal woes of Lingua Franca, a magazine about academic affairs that ceased publication last fall.

Lingua Franca purchased A&L Daily three years ago. When the magazine declared bankruptcy last fall, it was only a matter of time until the blog, too, was put up for sale, said Dutton, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"I'd like to see A&L Daily survive and thrive. We'll see what happens," added Dutton, who said he and his co-editor, Tran Huu Dung, may purchase the site themselves when it goes on the auction block.

It is all a bit murky, Dutton conceded. For one thing, the site never made a profit--although early on, he hoped it might do just that--and he and Dung were working for free. That, one would think, might limit interest by potential purchasers.

Lingua Franca's founder, Jeffrey Kittay, recently announced he might try to resurrect the magazine and publish it under the guidance of the New York Review of Books. But that plan, too, may not pan out. "It's looking too difficult for me to do," Kittay said Tuesday. "We'll see."

In the meantime, Dutton and Dung, an economics professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, hope idea-hungry academics will turn to other, more specialized sites to which they contribute, including Philosophy and Literature (philosophyandliterature.com), the online version of a scholarly journal Dutton founded; SciTech Daily Review (scitechdaily.com); Business Daily Review (businessdailyreview.com); Human Nature Review (huma-nature.comnibbs); and Arts Journal (arts journal.com).

No one knows what will happen after Oct. 24. Should the site not return, however, academics surely will miss its irreverent, irascible summaries of scholarly articles, along with its distinctive masthead: A quotation from the Stoic Seneca (4 BC to AD 65).

"Veritas Odit Moras" (Truth hates delay) is the line, proving that Seneca was ahead of his time. He knew, even way back then, that the Internet would be a rapid-fire delivery system for subversive--and indispensable--ideas.

Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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