Reviewing the Review: September 23 2007

A graphic redesign of the print edition of the New York Times Book Review’s launches with this weekend’s issue. Designer Nicholas Blechman seems to like white space, a strange wide ribbon of which adorns the top of each page. I don’t see what purpose this serves, but I suppose no significant damage is done.

Here’s the more exciting change: the NYTBR has just launched a new weekly bestseller list featuring my favorite format (you haven’t heard?), trade paperback! Smart, smart, good, good. The first number one title on this debuting list is Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, and you better believe I’m hoping this new list will help our industry evolve more quickly away from its currently dominant format for fiction, that elephantine object known as the hardcover.

One slight quibble: if the new list is titled “Paperback Best Sellers” (divided into “Trade Fiction”, headed by Sara Gruen’s elephants, and “Mass Market Fiction”, headed by David Baldacci’s The Collectors), why is the hardcover list titled “Best Sellers” and not “Hardcover Best Sellers”? If any format deserves the unqualified title “Best Sellers”, shouldn’t that be the format that sells the most total units of the three? But I’m happy with small changes and I’ll back off this point for now.

Structural changes aside, this issue of the Book Review is packed with rewarding stuff. Dale Peck turns in a 40th anniversary appreciation of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders that softly but gloriously illuminates its subject, which is exactly what all those dumb, repititious 50th anniversary appreciations of Kerouac’s On The Road last month didn’t do. Peck wonders how a 17-year-old from Oklahoma could write with such broad appeal and concludes that books like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and films like Rebel Without A Cause and West Side Story deeply informed young S. E. Hinton. But this does not diminish her acheivements at all, especially since she had the intuitive good sense to make her junior-hoodlum narrator a dreamy film freak and book lover. Hinton’s lack of originality resonates harmonically with her hero’s cramped yearnings, and textual borrowings that a mean-spirited reader might call plagiarism are instead revealed as the best kind of creative alchemy. Peck writes:

I was reminded of 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan, who was flayed last year for borrowing excessively from various sources for her own novel. If some high-minded, plagiarism-wary reader had persuaded S. E. Hinton to remove all references to the books and movies that inspired her, “The Outsiders” probably wouldn’t have slipped past the internal (let alone official) censors that governed 60’s adolescence.

Controversies aside, I mainly like Peck’s piece because he treats this young adult classic with generous respect and endeavors to tell us things about the book that we haven’t heard before. Which is, again, what all the 50th anniversary blatherings about Kerouac last month didn’t do.

This Book Review has more good articles than I have time to write about or (I bet) than you have patience to read about. Katie Roiphe’s explication of Janet Malcolm’s new Gertrude Stein book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice helps me understand my own confused but fascinated reaction to Malcolm’s intentionally fractured approach to biography (I just finished reading this slim book myself, and hope to write more about it soon). Daniel Handler is wild about Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway. David Bowman tries to explain Brock Clarke’s An Arsonists’ Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England to the many NYTBR readers who will probably find the title frightening.

I wish Paul Berman’s lushly self-important article on Vaclav Havel’s autobiography To The Castle and Back was longer and more perceptive, and I wish he told us whether or not the title referred to Kafka’s Schloss. I guess I’ll have to find out for myself. But I’m so pleased by the good articles here that I won’t dwell on that, and I won’t dwell on William Saletan’s review of The Stuff of Thought by brain philosopher Steven Pinker except to point out that for the second time in two weeks, the NYTBR has recruited a journalist from the online magazine Slate to write about a subject that’s too deep for his swimming class. Last week Slate’s Bible specialist David Plotz revealed that he had never heard of the field known as biblical scholarship, and this week William Saletan reveals his ignorance of Philosophy 101:

“The Stuff of Thought” explores the duality of human cognition: the modesty of its construction and the majesty of its constructive power. Pinker weaves this paradox from a series of opposing theories. Philosophical realists, for instance, think perception comes from reality. Idealists think it’s all in our heads. Pinker says it comes from reality but is organized and reorganized by the mind.

Actually it was Immanuel Kant who said that. He died a long time ago. Pinker’s book attempts to go much further than this, but there’s no evidence that Saletan is capable of following along. It’s nice that the Book Review is trying to include online writers, but they might want to look further than in the future.

Ed Champion hates Toni Bentley’s review of Katha Pollitt’s Learning To Drive, but I’m full up from all the fiction reviews and don’t even feel like figuring out what the fuss is about. I did read the earnest but unsurprisingly dismissive Leslie Gelb article about John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s controversial The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy as well as David Margolick’s inquisitive cover article on Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court but it’s the Day of Atonement and I shouldn’t even be online right now (much less eating breakfast, which I’m also doing) so I’m going to cut my coverage here.

If the New York Times Book Review were always this substantial, I’d have to find something else in the world to complain about every weekend.

3 Responses

  1. Once againan insightful look
    Once again

    an insightful look at the NYTBR.

    Getting back to the hardcover-softcover issue: It strikes me that the hardcover release is like what the film industry used to do years ago. They would release a new film in the big downtown theatres, and then dole them out to the “neighborhoods” after a couple of weeks. It was sort of an elitist thing. In my native Chicago, a big film like say “Goldfinger” would come out and play only in the Loop. Then, when the crowds died down, it would appear in our neighborhood cinemas.

    The film industry has long since abandoned this approach. Now a major film appears in all cinemas (softcover if you will) at once.

  2. Testament of DrMabuseEd
    Testament of DrMabuse

    Ed “DrMabuse” Champion is simply saying that criticism should offer specific examples, not nebulous dismissive wisecracks. I agree.

  3. Not A PhilosopherOh please
    Not A Philosopher

    Oh please don’t refer to Stephen Pinker as a philosopher. It’s like calling Norman Mailer an expert.

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