New York Times Birth Book Review

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As we celebrate The New York Times Book Review’s 125th anniversary, take a journey with us through the newspaper’s early years as we examine how its literary coverage began – and how it evolved and grew before being derived into the book. Journal as we know it today.

It all started in the very first issue of the New York Daily Times on September 18, 1851. Look closely at the old, yellowed pages, densely spotted with six columns of tiny, often smeared characters, and there – in an article on Page 2 titled “Snap-Shots at Books, Talk and Town, ”the newspaper outlined its ambitious plans to cover the books and publishing industry.

“Librarians are instantly bidding on the glut of summer literature, and sometimes it might be worth taking our readers to the halls of that traffic,” the newspaper said. “Sometimes we, too, take note of the books of the day – unravel their narrative in a newspaper column and give the audience, whom we have taken in hand to serve, a running synopsis of their history. And if we do, from time to time, critically strike in their own way, method, or morality, we will do so with all the modesty, and perhaps the occasional hiccup, that belongs to our rapid fire.

No time was wasted. The next day the newspaper featured a column on authors and artists titled “Limnings of Literary People” and on September 22 the first book reviews appeared. They included gems such as “The United States Post-Office Guide” and a seemingly execrable novel titled “Kenneth: A Romance of the Highlands,” which began criticism, “Mr. Reynolds is a bad specimen of a very bad school of writers.

The book reviews, published at least once a week, were clear and to the point. DJ Browne’s “American Muck Book”, for example, received one-line praise as “undoubtedly a most valuable aid to the farmer who admits science to the service of agriculture”. Two novels from 1851 that we now consider important have not been reviewed: “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, which came out a few weeks after the Times began to publish, and “The House of the Seven Gables” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The second half of the nineteenth century is rich in riches: “There were giants of literature, and pygmies too, on earth,” writes Francis Brown, who edited the Book Review from 1949 to 1971. “It was the period of Trollope and Dickens and Thackeray, of Whitman, Longfellow, Tennyson and Baudelaire, of Darwin and Huxley, of the Russians Turgenev, Dostoyevky and Tolstoy. With a few notable exceptions, the article covered all of the important books published during those decades.

“Villette”, by Charlotte Brontë, has been hailed as “a first-class work”. An anonymous reviewer struggled with “Leaves of Grass,” first calling Walt Whitman a “literary fraud” and then confessing, “Nonetheless, this man has some brave things about him. … Since most of this review was written, we admit that we have been drawn to “Leaves of Grass” again and again. that after the most deliberate examination of Mr. Darwin’s arguments, we are still not convinced? “

Best-selling novels of the day were often first published in serial form, usually in magazines like Harper’s and Scribner’s, and the Times covered new chapters with fanfare. “The first sheets of ‘Bleak House’ – Dickens’ new novel – were received before their publication in London, for Harper’s Magazine,” the newspaper reported in a front page article on March 16, 1852. “They’ve got it clear. ring of real metal Although an editor once said that “we hate anything that is published in part,” the Times has nonetheless published its own soap operas, including “The Hand of Ethelberta” by Thomas Hardy.

Coverage of The Times’ early books extended far beyond reviews and soap operas. Holiday gift guides, publishing news, literary scandals, poems, summer readings, and recommendations for kids could all be found within the pages of the newspaper. In 1871, an editorial protested against the moral depravity of “flash literature”; in 1875, a male author wrote about the difficulties of dressing his female characters (the opening line: “What should I put on her head?”). Dime novels – the luscious westerns that were blamed for social ills, just as comics were in the mid-20th century and violent video games more recently – have featured in countless reports.

Literary stories, large and small, were considered newsworthy. A letter of support from Louisa May Alcott to the American Woman Suffrage Association has been reprinted in its entirety, as has Mark Twain’s remedy for the common cold: “Regular gin was recommended, then gin and molasses, then gin. and onions. I took all three. When Oscar Wilde was the victim of card fraud in New York, readers learned about it in an article titled “Oscar Fleeced at Bunco”.

The writers’ marriages, illnesses, arrests, writing habits, children, money problems and vacations fueled the stories. Their deaths too. When beloved authors died, The Times ran deathbed updates – in Walt Whitman’s case, for months – that we would now find intrusive.

Considering the breadth and depth of literary coverage throughout the newspaper during those early decades, it might not come as a surprise that someone decided to put all of these stories and reviews into one section. of dedicated books. That someone was Adolph S. Ochs, who created the Book Review as a stand-alone supplement shortly after becoming the editor of the newspaper in 1896. Thus was born the New York Times Book Review, a publication which in During its 125- The story of the year has been known as “the Saturday Review of Books and Art”, “the Sunday Book Review”, “the NYTBR” or, mostly internally, simply “TBR” .

“In this publication was realized an idea from the editor of The Times that a newspaper book review should be a literary journal, treating newly published books as news and in addition containing other news of literary events.” , wrote Elmer Davis in “History of The New York Times, 1851-1921.

“Books as News” remained the watchword of the Book Review for years. “Literary criticism, which is excellent in its own way, but strictly speaking a means rather than an end, has never been the main object of its existence,” reiterates the Book Review in 1913. “An open forum for discussion of the books from all sane and honest perspectives are still available in the New York Times Book Review.

Over time, the Book Review has evolved, abandoning its saying “books as news” and embracing literary criticism, essays, theories and ideas. It has become a lens through which to look not only at literature but also the world at large, with academics and thinkers weighing in on all the people, issues, and topics covered in books: philosophy, art, science, economy, history, art and more.

J. Donald Adams, who was appointed editor of the Book Review in 1925, later recalled: “When I took over, The Times thought all you had to do was tell people what to do. that there was in the books. I wanted to make the book review something more than that. Under him, the reviews became more opinionated and the coverage wider and deeper. “Dissent in itself can be exciting, it can shed light in gray corners,” wrote Francis Brown in a brief history for the Book Review in 1968. “As our culture becomes more and more unified, the diversity is a quality to be cherished and cultivated, and how boring, stupefying it would be to agree on politics, aesthetics or whatever you like – and especially on books which, by their very being, bear witness to of the diversity of man.

James Baldwin has written for the Book Review, as has Langston Hughes. Toni Morrison was a regular contributor. Eudora Welty was on the staff briefly and reviewed figures like EB White, Virginia Woolf, and SJ Perelman. Presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Herbert Hoover – have written reviews, as have musicians, poets, playwrights, academics, Nobel laureates, tycoons and Hollywood stars.

In many ways, the history of the Book Review is that of American letters. Through its coverage over the years, you can see how reading tastes and buying habits of American books have changed, how literary criticism has evolved, and how history – especially the two world wars – has shaped. what was written and published. Yet even though the literary landscape has changed dramatically over the past 125 years, sometimes under the influence of the Book Review, some things remain the same: as an 1897 editor’s note noted, “Life is worth it. pain to be lived. “

Excerpt from THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW: 125 YEARS OF LITERARY HISTORY edited by Tina Jordan with Noor Qasim, copyright © 2021 by The New York Times Company. Used with permission from Clarkson Potter as an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.


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