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August 01, 2005

Last Month's News About the Culture?

by Ron Hogan

Last October, the Book Babes did an interview with Sam Tanenhaus about his plans for the New York Times Book Review, and he suggested, "We're going to treat books not as literary artifacts but as news about the culture." As one of the Babes interpreted that remark, "The selection of what is reviewed by the NYTBR will depend not on whether a book will stand the test of time in a literary universe, but whether it has currency in the here and now."

How well does this week's Review fulfill that mandate? Let's see:

  • Posner's essay on media polarization isn't really a book review, though it does mention books. It's more NYRB than what we've traditionally thought of as NYTBR, but Tanenhaus has given plenty of indication over the last year that he's willing to take that path, and this lengthy piece is certainly "news about the culture."

  • Fiction: The review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is as timely as a weekly publication can hope in reviewing an embargoed book. In the books-in-brief "chronicle," Abdulrazak Gurnah's Desertion and Moris Farhi's Young Turk are both recent publications, but the remaining titles on the page go back a bit further, with one dating back to 2004. Still, credit should be given for offering this much space to non-American fiction. The Method Actors is also a fairly timely review, as the skewering of Tilly Bagshawe's Adored would be--if Janet Maslin hadn't already covered it a month earlier (admittedly not as stylishly as Elissa Schappell, though my personal bias undoubtedly factors into that evaluation).

  • Nonfiction: The "last month" problem is even more glaring in the case of Joe Queenan's slam of Ed Klein's The Truth About Hillary. Not only was this territory picked clean when the book was fresh, it's already been covered heavily in NYTBR itself: first a Dwight Garner item on July 10th, then Naomi Wolf's historical perspective just last week. What does Joe Queenan bring to this well-stocked table other than his trademark putdowns? Mitigating against this, though, the other reviews are overall quite timely, only reaching back as far as April for the Augustine biography and the book about the Medicis in the grab-bag "chronicle" (though the haphazard grouping is a problem of a different sort).

    The question of how relevant Jay Gould, the 1940 Democratic convention, Tom Paine, and Saint Augustine are in "currency in the here and now" terms is one you'll have to answer for yourself; I'm not inclined to disagree with Tanenhaus' judgments on subject matter, only on the pacing of books tied to the news cycle. In the abstract, I'm in favor of history, and not just when it can "teach us about ourselves."

Obviously, there's just so much a weekly publication can do in terms of staying on top of current events. But getting Harry Potter in on time makes the late coverage on The Truth About Hillary that much more glaring. If Liesl Schillinger can get a hot book reviewed on quick turnaround, why can't Joe Queenan? Or do his intangibles make up for his tardiness--is it okay to be a month behind the news, and following in Naomi Wolf's footsteps to boot, if you're "funny"? I wouldn't have thought so--on the other hand, one could conceivably argue that even if most people in the news cycles have finished talking about Ed Klein's fascination with lesbians, the book's presence on the NYT bestseller list for the last five weeks is in and of itself proof of its relevance. In which case, we should be seeing a review of Nancy Grace's Objection! in next week's issue, right?

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