Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The decline of the book review

Like most things in our culture having to do with the printed word, the book review is in decline. In the survival struggles of several metropolitan newspapers the book section vanished early. Many small papers first cut and then eliminated the freelance budgets that allowed for the review of books of local interest.

This decline in reviews represents a big loss for readers. Sure, you can read what other readers think of books on Amazon and elsewhere on the web, but there is no filter for these. There is no telling whether the writers have personal connections with the authors or whether they have credentials as reviewers. There is no one to lay down a set of ethical and reader-friendly rules for the reviewers, no knowledgeable editor to select books worthy of review.

In the book world, pure democracy has its advantages, but it has drawbacks, too.

Michael Pakenham
For several years during the early 2000s, I was a horse in the stable of Michael Pakenham, the book editor of the Baltimore Sun. He knew my capabilities and sent me half a dozen books a year for review. He also sent boxes of Civil War books from which I was to choose five every six months or so for an omnibus review.

Michael had rules and enforced them. The length limit for a review was 600 words. Each review was to include a line written by the reviewer that would stick in the reader’s head. Each was to identify the intended audience for the book under review. And each had a tight deadline: Michael was a newsman, and books and authors were news.

This all seemed over-prescriptive when I started, but I came to appreciate Michael’s ways. The length limit allowed him to make the most of the space he had, serving the variety of interests that would be drawn to this space. The requirement for a line that would stick forced the reviewer to think about each sentence and write better throughout. Identifying the audience served readers as consumers.

Then one day Michael was gone, and with him much of the space he had filled so intelligently.

I love book reviews. Often I read them even though I know I will not read the book. I also read the book critics of bygone times, Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin, to name two.

Alfred Kazin
I have a shelf of Kazin, but recently at the Book Farm, a favorite used book store in Henniker, N.H., I found Contemporaries, a book I didn’t know. I bought it and put aside my other reading to read Kazin’s essays on Dylan Thomas’s death wish, Stephen Crane’s wife, the centenary of the Civil War, the posthumous battle over Emily Dickinson’s poems, Philip Roth’s first book, Kazin’s love affair with Moby-Dick and half a dozen more.

I subscribe to the New York Review of Books and the Book Review of the New York Times. In these hard times for the printed word, I worry about them both for different reasons. With the Review of Books my question is: How long can its editors keep this up? I always find fresh and surprising reviews and essays in its pages. Among periodicals, only the New Yorker consumes more of my time. I like many of the Review’s regular contributors, including my poet friend Charles Simic, a fine prose writer with eclectic interests.

What worries me about the Book Review in the Times may be as much about me as it is about the publication. I spend much less time with it than I used to. Either the reviews and essays are less compelling or I am less interested in contemporary literature.

Whichever is correct, I began writing this glimpse into my book world for positive reasons associated with the New York Times Book Review. This Sunday’s edition reminded me of the old days. In part this was because the subjects it took up were of interest to me. It included reviews of two books on how World War I started and two columns on the current fiction vs. nonfiction debate.

Jill Abramson
But the best of the Review was the meaty cover essay. Written by Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the Times, it addressed an issue that has bugged me for a long time.

The essay was titled “The Elusive President.” The president in question was John F. Kennedy, the occasion the coming 50th anniversary of his assassination. Abramson’s premise was that, for all his popularity, few good books have been written about Kennedy.

I’ve read, or tried to read, many of the books Abramson mentioned. As you can see from an earlier post, I’m a fan of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. But as Caro told Abramson, even though Kennedy is one of the great American stories, “there is no great biography of Kennedy.”

Abramson correctly argued that Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life is the best Kennedy biography, but frankly I couldn’t get through it. I just didn’t find Dallek a compelling storyteller. Abramson was also right in suggesting that one of the best Kennedy books is The Death of a President by William Manchester. The long excerpt she quotes told you why: Manchester was not only a good popular historian, but he was also a lyrical writer who knew how to rise to his subject.

You can read Abramson’s essay here. And here you can read Norman Mailer’s account of Kennedy and the 1960 Democratic convention, which Abramson also praised.

I hope the Book Review will do more such penetrating and important cover essays. Michael Pakenham was right: Books are news, and conflict and controversy swirl around them.

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