It's accepted as a given in publishing that book reviews do not matter the way they once did, and that the New York Times Book Review has lost at least some of its status as the central arbiter of importance and quality.
What do you think? Do you read the Times Book Review regularly? Did you ever? Do you think it has changed over the years? Do you wish it would do more -- or less -- of anything in particular?
In short: If a call came tomorrow and you were asked to take over as editor of the Times Book Review, what, if any, changes would you make?
One clear change has been the increase in alternatives to which readers can turn to shape their views about books -- from Amazon, both with its reader reviews and best-of-the-year lists, to Goodreads to online-only reviews such as those here at Huffington Post Books and the Daily Beast.
For example, I reviewed Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding warmly here at Huff Post Books, where many read about it who had never seen the earlier Times Book Review treatment of the book, and Harbach's novel went on to be named the best book of the year by Amazon, another excellent way to alert readers to a wildly enjoyable book that has me and many others already eager to read the next Harbach novel that might come along.
For all that, there is still only one New York Times Book Review and I for one still try to read it every week as I have tried to do as often as possible for thirty years now. I worried at times in recent years that the NYTBR had lost some of its energy; I hoped to see more reviews that avoided the tepid middle ground of on-the-one-hand-this-and-on-the-other-that and followed an approach more like that of the Times staff reviewer Dwight Garner, who writes colorfully and with passion and precision and also seems equally willing to gush about a new book he loves or to dispatch a book he loathes with a few devastating lines.
Looking at the most recent Times Book Review as a kind of snapshot glimpse, my own reaction is a big thumbs up. Andrew Delbanco's very positive review of a new Updike collection is passionate and very well written ("It is a slander" he roars at one point against Updike detractors) and novelist Arthur Phillips reviews three new Hemingway books without falling into the myriad traps awaiting anyone writing about Hemingway. Throw in Henry Kissinger on George F. Kennan in the lead review, a lengthy and serious essay that represents critical writing as event, and it's a winning mix. Here is one paragraph of Kissinger's review that I expect will be widely quoted:
Kennan often shrank from the application of his own theories. In 1948, with an allied government in China crumbling, Kennan -- at some risk to his career -- advanced the minority view that a Communist victory would not necessarily be catastrophic. In a National War College lecture, he argued that "our safety depends on our ability to establish a balance among the hostile or undependable forces of the world." A wise policy would induce these forces to "spend in conflict with each other, if they must spend it at all, the intolerance and violence and fanaticism which might otherwise be directed against us," so "that they are thus compelled to cancel each other out and exhaust themselves in internecine conflict in order that the constructive forces, working for world stability, may continue to have the possibility of life." But when, in 1969, the Nixon administration began to implement almost exactly that policy, Kennan called on me at the White House, in the company of a distinguished group of former ambassadors to the Soviet Union, to warn against proceeding with overtures to China lest the Soviet Union respond by war.
Even with far more alternatives available to readers intent on keeping up with books, it does help to have institutions like the Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books -- under the leadership of the amazing Bob Silvers -- that provide a central forum for texts that have a little more importance since we know they will be read and considered and argued over in a special way.
Take a look and tell us what you think. Offer your suggestions on what the Times Book Review could be doing differently -- or what you like or love about it.
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