Remembering Denis Dutton, Professor and Web Pioneer

The Arts & Letters Daily founder dies at 66

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On Tuesday, Denis Dutton passed away in New Zealand after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 66. Dutton was an author, a philosophy professor, and the founder of Arts & Letters Daily, a general-interest Web aggregator that launched in 1998. The site's wide range and highbrow sensibility attracted praise and loyal readers almost from its first days, and Dutton gained a reputation as an intellectual heavyweight and one of the Web's foremost curators. (It's probably fair to say The Atlantic Wire wouldn't exist if not for the trail blazed by Dutton's site.) This week, the world of letters mourns his loss.

  • He Lived a Full Life, notes blogger Colin Marshall. "I'll resist spinning this into yet another live-while-you-can routine," Marshall writes, "but I dare only hope to lead a life half as rich as the sitar-playing, aesthetics-exploring, expatriate-living, intellectual-tastemaking one Denis seems to have."

  • Let Us Now Praise A&LD  "Arts & Letters culls the best and most iconoclastic literary, political, and philosophical articles from all over, and is always surprising, even to those of us who read it daily," writes Charlotte Hays at National Review. "I have always felt Arts & Letters almost unique in having no discernible political bias."

  • A Singular Resource, agrees Anne Applebaum at The Washington Post. "For the better part of the past decade, Arts and Letters Daily has been the only non-news Web site I have checked faithfully," Applebaum writes. "If all you read every day were the articles Dutton recommended, you would have a pretty good idea of what was going in, well, the world of arts and letters ... Dutton was a seriously important cultural figure. I hope Arts and Letters Daily lives on forever without him."

  • Dutton Was One of the First to Grasp the Web  Reason's Nick Gillespie calls Dutton "one of the first people to fully demonstrate the power of the World Wide Web as medium for serious intellectual exchange." Gillespie goes to to say:

Arts & Letters Daily was one of the first great aggregator sites, pulling together reviews, essays, studies, op-eds, and more from a vast array of sources that had suddenly become available at the click of a mouse. Only a dozen years on, it's hard to remember the excitement that such developments brought to those of us (read: all of us) who had been starved for content in ways that we didn't even understand. Back in 1994, Reason Editor in Chief Virginia Postrel surveyed the coming age of info-plenty and dubbed it "The Age of the Editor" ... Denis created the world's greatest coffee house and magazine rack, a place where interested customers could dawdle all day while reading an endless stream of fascinating material pulled from the far edges of the galaxy.

  • Not Everything He Did Was Admirable, points out Blake Eskin at The New Yorker. "I couldn't quite get over discovering that Denis was also behind the falsely even-handed Climate Debate Daily, which strikes me more as an assignment for an industry lobbying firm than the passion project of a philosophy professor with little patience for nonsense." Still, Eskin writes, "Denis helped prove that the Web could be a platform not only for fast-paced celebrity gossip and pictures of cute animals but for long and serious writing and the exchange of complex ideas. Denis died today, but his site and his vision will endure."

  • What Happens to A&LD Now?  Carolyn Kellogg at the Los Angeles Times points out that Dutton oversaw day-to-day operations of the site, and his indifference to tech trends meant that "the site never incorporated some contemporary Web bells and whistles (no likes, no Twitter, yadda yadda)." Kellogg hopes that "maybe its future will include a little sprucing up."

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