Among the most unlikely residents of Christchurch, a New Zealand city of 414,000, is a philosophy professor whose work reaches every corner of the planet, a man Time magazine described as one of the most influential media personalities anywhere. Denis Dutton, born in Los Angeles 63 years ago, sits down at his computer every day and carefully begins explaining the world to itself through Arts & Letters Daily, a great intellectual magazine that could have existed at no previous moment in history.
In online jargon, Arts & Letters Daily is an aggregator, meaning it pulls together material from many sources. But its fans know it's much more than that. It's both a daily reminder of the riches available in the publications of the world and a map to finding those riches.
Since 1998, A & LD has been searching tirelessly for online articles that should be known everywhere, providing the links that make it possible for us to put them on our screens with a single mouse-click. The editors show a god-like way to find, in the most obscure places, material that pleases, surprises and stimulates their readers. Apparently not a sparrow falls, intellectually speaking, without their knowledge.
They carry brief introductions that have a way of making every article sound essential. Dutton's style of summarizing is all his own: "Science does not follow a clear road to truth; better is the idea of a meandering river in flood and drought ..."
A & LD's reach keeps growing broader. More than ever, it sends us to marvellous publications of which some of us have never previously heard -- Logos Journal, for instance, or Physicstoday.org, or The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.
If it has a political tendency, it's libertarian, which at least a couple of my readers have criticized as conservative. My feeling is that its openness to new thinking is the opposite of conservatism.
The other day, in just one of the three columns that make up its front page, A & LD sent us to articles on globalization (how much is too much?), the political fading of Europe, the failure of Canada to create superhero comics (that was by Jeet Heer, well known in these pages), the fresh popularity of atheism (perhaps eventually " The Atheist's Bible will be found in every hotel room"), Shakespeare as the first great generalizer in English, the insane popularity of expensive weddings, the chances for real democracy in India and the surprising longevity of Goth styles among the young.
In the way the editors defy space and time, it's a uniquely 21st-century enterprise. Dutton's managing editor, Tran Huu Dung, is an economist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, 13,846 km from Christchurch as the crow flies. When it's 8 p.m. on Wednesday night in Dayton, it's noon on Thursday in Christchurch. (The editorial meetings must be murder.) Even their relationship began digitally: Dutton hired Dung when he knew him only through e-mail.
The occasional appearance of a piece by me on A & LD produces celebration around my house. It's like winning a prize. Besides, it brings unexpected responses from faraway places, such as Argentina or Korea. Sometimes, it even attracts a few words from old lefty friends who would never read me in print because they're so crazed by politics that they fear mental exposure to a "right-wing" (shudder) newspaper like the Post.
A piece I wrote about A & LD five years ago has been mentioned to me by more readers than anything else I've written in the Post. Some readers just want me to remind them of the Web address (www.aldaily.com) because "something happened" to their computer (how well I know what that means); they've lost it and don't know how to find it again. An impressive number say something like "that column was the best thing you've ever done for me." I know what they mean. A&LD is so pleasant that it can become part of one's life in a few weeks. It can be addictive, even dangerously so. It's my home page, and often I read it first thing in the morning; but on days when there's difficult work to be done, I exercise virtuous restraint and postpone even glancing at it till afternoon. It can be a guilty pleasure, happily consuming hours while deadlines loom.
A writer in The Times once remarked, "Arts & Letters Daily satisfies your intellectual cravings like an expert sommelier at the swankest restaurant in town." That's dead wrong. The idea of satisfaction misses the point. Daniel Bell said that a book is not a meal; it should not satisfy us but make us hungry for more books. The best article works in the same way.
Intellectuals like to believe they exist on a plane of serene detachment, where issues of fashion are ignored, no one worries about keeping up with the cultural news, and certainly no one cares which ideas are hot and which are limping sadly off the stage, spent or discredited.
A & LD embodies another view. Its elegant design resembles the little papers that were passed around in 18th-century London coffee houses, sometimes called "the penny university" because you could read all the news if you paid a penny for coffee. (A & LD is cheaper.)
Dutton treats even the most serious thinking as news and proudly displays a motto borrowed from Seneca: Veritas odit moras, meaning "Truth hates delay." Born out of a depressingly slow university world where books sometimes take four years to go through the press, A & LD delivers the best thinking at the highest speed.
Dutton loves the intellectually eccentric -- he gleefully tells us about a Marxist critique of basketball, for instance. But as he says, he hopes mainly to focus on subjects that count. He sees the encounter between Islam and the West as one essential theme. "We need deeper, better thinking and better analysis, to understand this great cultural moment," he remarked a couple of years ago. On that topic, he chooses material so well that he can enrich even those who think they know it well.
A & LD does for ideas what the Bloomberg service does for commerce. It watches developments, sorts things out, tells you what you need to know. It doesn't produce the profits Bloomberg brings in, but over time its ability to make connections may turn out to be even more important than the stock market.