With all the talk these days about book reviews and saving them, it’s difficult not to look to “successful” stand alone book sections such as The Washington Post Book World and The New York Times Book Review for how and why they stick around. I was interested, then, when browsing The Times site today, to discover the book review editor Sam Tannenhaus answering reader questions, one of which seems particularly timely (I’ve included only relevant parts for my purposes, and the italics are mine):
Q. What is the point of the Book Review, as you see it? I mean, you must either have some ideal personally, or your staff must have some agreed upon idea collectively, or perhaps there is a historical ideal, which is written on a plaque on the wall? In other words: What is the “mission” of the Book Review?
A. …Our mission is very simple: to publish lively, informed, provocative criticism on the widest-possible range of books and also to provide a kind of snapshot of the literary culture as it exists in our particular moment through profiles, essays and reported articles.
There are many, many books published each year – hundreds stream into my office in the course of a week. Our job is to tell you which ones we think matter most, and why, and to direct your attention to authors and critics who have interesting things to say, particularly if they have original ways of saying them.
At a time when the printed word is being stampeded by the rush of competing “media,” we’re here to remind you that books matter too – that reading, as John Updike’s invented novelist Henry Bech says, can be the best part of a person’s life.
Perhaps the editors at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who I used to write for until they eliminated the book editor position and will now print all non-local book reviews from the wires; the San Francisco Chronicle, who already trimmed the book section but many, including myself, fear may deliver more cuts with the announcement of a 25% reduction in newsroom staff and the resulting exit of the managing editor (see article on the right under @Literary Links@); and the Chicago Tribune, which at least only moved their stand alone section to Saturdays, bringing it in line with my Guardian Review reading; should take a closer look at this mission and both papers’ practice of using dedicated advertising salespeople to creatively bring ad revenue for books, which allow the sections not only to be successful, but to pay their own ways.