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by John Wilson


The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Book reviews, the Book Review, the fate of civilization, etc.

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Our soundtrack this week is "The Information," from Beck's CD of the same name. Thanks to Krista Peel, who gave this CD to me when it came out a year ago. Thanks also to all of you who wrote during the past week about book reviewing, the Book Review (the New York Times Book Review, that is), and related matters.

You may have seen some of the articles in the last few months reporting on cutbacks in coverage of books in newspapers around the country. This is certainly unwelcome news, though perhaps the situation is not as dire as some commentators have suggested.

The Book Review is a special case, of course, since the New York Times is the most influential paper in the United States. When the Times went into the shrinking machine this summer, the Book Review, alas, wasn't spared. In the first issues after the Great Diminution, the page design was quite peculiar. There were oddly placed slabs of white space on each review page, as if to say We're not worried about losing space; in fact, we're going to squander more of it! Like tearing up money to show how little a few hundred bucks means to you. On some pages, the effect was so intrusive that some non–hip readers might have wondered if the printer had fallen asleep. (If you save your back issues, as I do, see p. 8 of the August 26th issue for an egregious example.)

After a few weeks, fortunately, the design was tweaked again. The aggressive white space was gone, and some other elements were changed (the Contents pages was redesigned, publication data moved, and so on). Overall I think this latest redesign is very much for the better. Still, the cumulative effect of the changes—chiefly the shrinkage, but also including expanded coverage for the paperback bestseller lists—is pretty clear: a lot of words per issue have been lost. How many? I don't know. Perhaps as much as one–third of the total. Both as an editor and as a reader, that pains me.

Still, there's plenty left for the hungry reader, not only in the pages of the Book Review but in an enormous variety of other publications. If you care about books and ideas, you should subscribe to a few of them, as your budget permits. Above all else, what a good book review section or review publication gives you is glimpses of the larger world. Last Sunday's issue of the Book Review (October 14th) featured, among other things, a history of beans, a novel by the Peruvian master Mario Vargas Llosa, a biography of the creator of Peanuts, and an essay on Tolstoy's War and Peace. The sheer variety and unpredictability of the subjects is tonic.

And of course as readers of reviews, we are also constantly encountering ways of seeing the world that differ from our own perspectives. Sometimes the difference may be a family quarrel, so to speak; other times the differences will run deeper. In any given issue of the Book Review, I can expect to find many examples of the latter.

Not that we read simply to divide the sheep from the goats. In the Book Review of October 7th, Ken Tucker reviewed Christian Wiman's memoir Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. I would have read the review in any case, but we are going to be publishing an interview with Wiman (the editor of Poetry magazine) in a few months, and that heightened my interest. Tucker is a sharp and witty writer, and I agreed with some of his criticisms of Wiman, but by the end of the review I felt that he couldn't really be trusted as a reviewer. In a patronizing paragraph on the concluding piece in Wiman's book, Tucker describes it as

"an exceedingly personal essay about three subjects: Wiman gives up writing poetry and then starts writing it again; Wiman falls in love; Wiman receives a diagnosis of 'an incurable cancer in my blood.' The effect is to close off all further responses other than to have any reviewer of book say:

I wish him the best life he can have."

But the essay in question, "Love Bade Me Welcome," begins thus:

"Though I was raised in a very religious household, until about a year ago I hadn't been to church in any serious way for over twenty years. It would be inaccurate to say that I have been indifferent to God in all that time. Even a casual glance through the essays in this book reveals not only how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination, but also a persistent existential anxiety.  I don't know whether this is all attributable to the century into which I was born, some genetic glitch, or a late reverberation of the fall of Man. What I do know is that I have not been at ease in this world."

I invite you to read this paragraph and the rest of Wiman's short essay—the title of which is taken from a poem by George Herbert—and then go back to Tucker's description of the essay and what it is "about." Why does Tucker completely misrepresent the essay? Does he dislike talk about God? Is he under the impression that such talk invariably shuts down a conversation? I don't know. If so, that's his privilege, but he isn't entitled to give a misleading impression of the book. By doing so, he has committed one of the cardinal sins of reviewing.

And yet, please note, this doesn't mean that all of Tucker's criticisms of Wiman are somehow invalidated. Reading reviews regularly invites give and take of a kind that we aren't likely to experience often enough in everyday encounters.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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