I learned about “thick” and “thin” during the years I worked for Time Inc. When an unusually heavy issue of Time came off the presses, executives and others in the know would smile and augur good things for the company (and, by extension, for the American economy). A particularly slender magazine brought scorn, bowed heads and concern for our job security. However, the magazine contained the same amount of editorial content each week. The difference between a thick and thin issue was the amount of ads the sales team was able to sell that week.
At 24 pages, this week’s New York Times Book Review feels mighty thin. Doesn’t anybody besides Bauman’s Rare Books, AuthorHouse, Bose Audio and Penguin Young Readers Group have something to advertise? Can’t somebody get Knopf or FSG or Simon and Schuster to take a phone call? It’s three and a half weeks before Christmas, so I don’t think we can blame the downturn on the season. Let’s just say that, as much as I often criticize this frustrating but important publication, I really hope the New York Times Book Review will weather our current economic problems well in future months. This is a forum we cannot afford to lose.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should accept sub-standard writing. Here’s how Caleb Crain begins his review of Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America by Ann Norton Greene:
Once upon a time, America derived most of its power from a natural, renewable resource that was roughly as efficient as an automobile engine but did not pollute the air with nitrogen dioxide or suspended particulate matter or carcinogenic hydrocarbons. This power source was versatile. Hooked up to the right devices, it could thresh wheat or saw wood. It was also highly portable — in fact, it propelled itself — and could move either along railroad tracks or independently of them. Each unit came with a useful, nonthreatening amount of programmable memory preinstalled, including software that prompted forgetful users once it had learned a routine, and each possessed a character so distinctive that most users gave theirs a name. As a bonus feature, the power source neighed.
If I live to be two hundred years old, I still won’t need to see this tired, tired opening device used again in a book review. Since we already know from the book’s title and the review’s subtitle and illustration that we are reading about horses, this whole thing feels like a long joke with a well-known punchline.
There are better articles today: Noam Scheiber summarizes Robert J. Samuelson’s The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath and Richard Holbrooke adds a personal touch to Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Virginia Heffernan is simply vicious to Sarah Vowell’s chatty rumination on our Pilgrim heritage, The Wordy Shipmates, which she considers marred by “sarcasm, flat indie-girl affect and kitsch worship”. I doubt this review will cost this book any sales — in fact, it makes me curious to evaluate the book myself. But Virginia Heffernan does express her feelings amusingly well.
Today’s best article is David Gates’ clear and admiring cover piece on Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. It was only two years ago that I finally read Beloved, and liked it very much. A Mercy also dives into America’s primitive history and appears to be a short and bracing read. I guess I’ll check it out too.
There are also competent considerations of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers by David Leonhardt, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies by Gaiutra Bahadur and David Vann’s gloomy Legend of a Suicide by Tom Bissell. This last review is illustrated, for some reason, by a photo of a crushed Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Maybe sardonic product placement is the Times’ ad sales team’s last chance.