Denis Dutton, Internet trailblazer and founder of Arts & Letters Daily, dies at 66

By Elaine Woo
Monday, January 3, 2011; 6:58 PM

Denis Dutton, a scholar, author and Internet trailblazer who founded Arts & Letters Daily, a pithy Web site that links thousands of devoted followers around the world to smart, provocative writing online about books, culture and ideas, died Dec. 28 in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he taught philosophy at the University of Canterbury. He was 66.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, said his brother, Doug, of the Dutton's Books family, which ran independent bookstores in Los Angeles for five decades.

Denis Dutton wrote books (including "The Art Instinct," an engaging treatise on the evolution of imagination, published in 2009) but did not join the family bookselling business.

He did, however, share his brothers' enterprising spirit. He launched a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, now run by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Determined to recirculate out-of-print academic works, he ventured into electronic book publishing years before the current e-book rage. And, in 1998, he created Arts & Letters Daily, which the New Yorker called the "first and foremost aggregator" of well-written book reviews and other literary writing available on the Web. The magazine dubbed Dr. Dutton "the intellectual's Matt Drudge," a reference to the founder of the influential news site Drudge Report.

Unlike Drudge, Dr. Dutton was not interested in breaking news. He wanted to "incite thought."

Modeled on a Victorian-era broadsheet, Arts & Letters Daily consists of three columns of witty teasers - written mainly by Dr. Dutton - about articles and essays on topics that provoked him and Managing Editor Tran Huu Dung, an economics professor at Wright State University in Ohio.

Recently, their synapses fired over pieces on the decline of the soap opera, the metaphysics of lawn mowing, the enduring allure of "The Arabian Nights," lasers and the search for the perfect golf swing, and a liberal's critique of multiculturalism.

The sources they linked to ranged from the mainstream to the obscure and swept across the political spectrum.

The diversity appealed to an erudite contrarian such as Dr. Dutton, who for some years was a member of the Libertarian Party. He loved few things more than a good argument and often would go to great lengths to debunk fraudulent ideas or their purveyors.

"That was his sport," Doug Dutton said in an interview last week.

The motto of Arts & Letters Daily was "Veritas Odit Moras" - Latin for "Truth Hates Delay" - a tidy summary of the Web site founder's approach to life.

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