The Breakfast Table

Where Have All the Book Reviews Gone?

Dear Katie,

Oops. I woke up late, I have to scramble to make an early meeting, and, to my horror, I’ve barely gotten to this morning’s papers. (Is Slate going to deduct from my technical difficulty score?) So I’m just going to throw out a couple of quick observations and pass it over to you.

First: Isn’t it remarkable to wake up every morning to papers that aren’t all terrorism, all the time? In the first weeks and months after Sept. 11, I’d have a Groundhog Day moment every morning. I’d drive to my train station (an 8-minute trip, just long enough to listen to two or three extremely loud, synapse-quickening songs that I drop onto mixed tapes for just this purpose) and buy my coffee, having pretty much forgotten about the World Trade Center, anthrax, etc. Then that morning’s Times would hit me like a dropped piano; it hadn’t all been a bad dream. It didn’t help that my train platform, in Garrison, looks directly across the Hudson River at West Point. That place seemed to be humming like a bee hive that had been whacked with a stick.

Also, I finally got my issues of Time and Newsweek last night, and they bummed me out for a reason that probably doesn’t depress a lot of people: There were zero book reviews in either place. Blame the Olympics, I suppose: All those graphics explaining what lutzes and triple-toe loops are eat up a lot of real estate. But book coverage in both magazines has been getting the squeeze for a long time, even before Sept. 11: These days, you’re lucky to find one or two freeze-dried 300-word reviews.

At Newsweek, at least they still have book critics—three, in fact, the estimable Mod Squad of David Gates, Malcolm Jones, and Jeff Giles. (Disclosure: I know all three slightly.) (Bonus disclosure: Weirdly, I share the same birthday with Gates and Jones.) Over at Time, as far as I can tell, they still haven’t officially replaced their elegant longtime critic Paul Gray, who retired a few months ago. My former colleague at Salon, Laura Miller (Did you see Caleb Carr’s recent bizarro attack on Laura and his eventual apology? Beware of writers who go into ALL CAPS mode.) has farmed out a few smart pieces to them recently, but I’d like to see more. I’m the kind of reader who pretty much judges magazines (even the Economist!) by the quality of their critics and their back-of-book sections, and lately back-of-book sections everywhere are looking depressingly anemic.


P.S.: Fess up, Katie. Are you watching the Olympics at all?