Reviewing the Review: December 4 2005

Today’s issue of the New York Times Book Review calls to mind the quantitative analyses of the editorial composition of a typical Book Review issue performed by Edward Champion last May, and Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon a couple of weeks ago. One point these bloggers seem to agree on is that the Book Review regularly falls short of our expectations in the areas of fiction/poetry coverage, while often overachieving in areas unrelated to fiction and poetry (hard news, history, science reporting, sociology). It’s not that the Book Review doesn’t review a lot of fiction and poetry titles — it does — but these titles get far less inches and less favorable positioning in the publication.

Are we as readers somehow complicit in this? Well, we may be. Let’s face it: the Book Review’s only business goal is to please and impress us — the readers of the world — so they can sell more ads and more copies. So, as audience jurors, what do we truly like to read? Opening up today’s Book Review, I was instantly drawn to Elizabeth Royte’s review of Mariana Gosnell’s book about the history and science of ice, which is apparently the new cod. I then spied on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior, courtesy of Hazel Rowley by way of Cristina Nehring. Then I found a good article about John Feinstein’s Plimpton act with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, followed by a fascinating inquiry into the real life sources of the Helen of Troy legend, the subject of a book subtitled “Goddess, Princess, Whore” by Bettany Hughes (I’ll never get around to reading the book, but I enjoyed Caroline Alexander’s summary), and then a decent Charles McGrath summary of Henry Hitchings books about early dictionary visionary Samuel Johnson.

Even for a fiction freak like me, it’s hard to pretend to be as interested in reviews of novels by strangers about strangers as I am about Samuel Johnson, Helen of Troy, the Baltimore Ravens, ice and French existentialist sexuality. In fact, some of the novels reviewed today sound quite good. I’m planning to check out Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nations which, according to Simon Baker, takes us inside the head of an African refugee turned soldier who finds himself committing the same kinds of atrocities that destroyed his family years before. I don’t usually read novels about giant squids, but Pat Walsh’s vivid notice of Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide made me want to change that trend.

But even as I sloughed through one (short) fiction review after another, I found my mind wandering. The truth is, fiction is harder to relate to than non-fiction, and likewise fiction reviews are harder to relate to than non-fiction reviews. But fiction is also, at least for me, far more edifying and personally meaningful. I just wish sometimes it didn’t go down like medicine on a Sunday morning.

Oh, as for the 100 Best lists that litter this week’s Book Review, I ignored them and you should too. I don’t write lists, and I don’t read them. Why? Because they’re useless.

8 Responses

  1. I generallyenjoy reading
    I generally

    enjoy reading “lists” in “publications” like this … beats the pretentious crap clogging up the rest of the pages. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

  2. This has me thinkingYou make
    This has me thinking

    You make a good point. I find myself drawn to reviews about non-fiction because at least I can relate to the subject matter. If I hadn’t read about Dave Eggers on LitKicks, then the title They Shall Know Our Velocity would have meant nothing to me. The title doesn’t really tell me what the book is about.

    On the other hand, when scanning the book review section of a magazine or newspaper, if I see titles like Burn Rate : How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet, or Edgar Allen Poe: A Critical Biogrpahy, or Varieties of Religious Experiences, or Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge – A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, then I immediately know something about the book and whether or not I want to read it.

    Come to think of it, I was attracted to the books of Jack Kerouac in large part because I understood them to be somewhat biographical. Same for A Moveable Feast by Hemingway; Junky and Queer by William S. Burroughs.

  3. Well, I guess I can
    Well, I guess I can understand that point of view. For me, the reaction was more instinctual than intellectual — faced with a list of “New York Times 100 Best Books of the Year”, I just felt myself filled with an overpowering mixture of apathy and disgust. Then I flicked the page and immediately felt better.

    I guess these lists can help readers find books, so I probably should have used the word “annoying” rather than “useless”.

  4. an overpowering mixture of
    an overpowering mixture of apathy and disgust…

    I’m not sure why this would only precipitate from a list … but I digress. And yes, you should be careful about those words, they are such tricky little bastards!

  5. Giant SquidI’m not one for
    Giant Squid

    I’m not one for brash accusations or on calling out possible lies, but I plan on doing both in the next sentence. I contend that this sentence:

    “I don’t usually read novels about giant squids, but Pat Walsh’s vivid notice of Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide made me want to change that trend.”

    is entirely false. In fact, I’d say that before this new squid book came along, there is a good chance you have read 100 percent of the novels about giant squid. Not only that, but I’d guess you’ve also seen a large percentage of the movies about giant squid. But that is all conjecture…

  6. Hmmm, Rubiao, you do have a
    Hmmm, Rubiao, you do have a point there. Although, interestingly, sperm whales subsist entirely of giant squids, and I did once read a book about a sperm whale. It all comes together.

  7. John FeinsteinI am not a
    John Feinstein

    I am not a sports nut, but John Feinstein is one of those writers who can make anything interesting. Try “Punch : one night, two lives, and the fight that changed basketball forever” – I couldn’t put it down.

  8. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
    20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the only one I can think of.

    Perhaps you will enjoy the new whale-penned memoir, A Whale of a Time: Moby Dick Remembers Captain Ahab

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