Reviewing the Review: December 17 2006

The New York Times Book Review is on BookTV this week! This hour-long documentary special gives us a rare glimpse of the secret workings inside the marble palace of 43rd Street where our favorite weekly publication is created.

I’ve been inside the Times Building several times but I’ve never gotten a peek down Book Review alley, so I watched this show with great interest. Bad news first: the Book Review staff seriously lacks charisma. Sam Tanenhaus would certainly be played by Bob Balaban in the movie version, and his fussy observations about deadlines and polished prose and journalistic jargon remind me of Balaban’s nervous folk-music tribute host in A Mighty Wind. Tanenhaus also resembles a Bananas-era Woody Allen when he gets excited and knits his eyebrows, but this mainly happens when he’s describing the mechanical or procedural aspects of his job. He tries exactly once to wax romantic about a book (The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford) and it’s a telling fact that the only thing he manages to say is that Ford won a Pulitzer Prize.

More bad news: in recognizing the “blogosphere”, Tanenhaus disparages us (yet again, yet again) as sloppy writers. I insist to the New York Times Book Review staff that the best bloggers out here (and I volunteer to be on the team) can at least hold our own, and could possibly kick the Book Review’s ass in a grammar/style face-off. I hereby offer a challenge.

Good news about the show: well, there’s not much good news. It speaks for Tanenhaus’s musical taste, I guess, that he has a Kurt Cobain poster in his office. The esteemed editor also shows a likable disregard for his physical appearance — he must have known this was going to be “camera day” but he didn’t shave or pick out one of his good shirts. Which I respect.

Tanenhaus’s deputies completely fail to pick up the slack in the charisma department. Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about this odd reality show is that these nerds do not completely collapse on screen. Senior Editor Dwight Garner, who would also be played by Bob Balaban in the movie, seems a little more natural romping in the fields of literature than his boss, but it’s depressing that both Garner and Tanenhaus pick the safe choice of Richard Ford (who really is too boring to read) when they attempt to rave about a contemporary novelist for the camera.

Preview Editor and political/history book specialist Barry Gewen, who gets a lot of face time in this show, looks like he wouldn’t know what to do with a novel or a poetry chapbook if he saw one. He would be played by Weird Al Yankovic, and the slushpile/paperback guy would be John Legend in his feature film debut.

Speaking of slushpiles, I think I spotted a dusty copy of Action Poetry on the third stack to the right near the garbage pail in Tanenhaus’s office.

Onto this week’s actual Book Review. It’s a war-themed issue, (which means, we now know, that the issue is Barry Gewen’s baby). Many of the articles are outstanding, especially Josiah Bunting’s bitter article describing a book called War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today by Max Boot. Bunting drives home the point that military bureaucrats and apologists (from every global power in the world) often trumpet their technological advances to cover up the fact that they are morally and strategically corrupt. A-fucking-men.

I used to get annoyed when the New York Times Book Review paid more attention to news and politics than to fiction and poetry, but lately I’ve been so wrapped up myself in our political debate that I don’t mind. Other articles I enjoyed reading this week include Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s dissection of Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation and Michael Goldfarb’s impassioned introduction to Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

But I’m not thrilled with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s review of Robert Richardson’s biography of William James, which fails to capture how truly exciting a philosopher William James is, and how relevant his Pragmatic philosophy can be in our own belief-stricken times. I’m glad the Book Review gave this biography a big two-page spread, though, and I hope I’ll get this biography for Christmas.

One Response

  1. throw the gauntlet down!”the
    throw the gauntlet down!

    “the best bloggers out here (and I volunteer to be on the team) can at least hold our own, and could possibly kick the Book Review’s ass in a grammar/style face-off. I hereby offer a challenge.”

    I bet that if you presented the challenge via a letter to the editor it’d be ignored.

    Why not work on a team and present your own review? That’d be news!!!

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