Preserving Book World's Mission
In recent years, Book World has run about 900 reviews annually. Counting shorter pieces -- briefs and roundups of one sort or another -- we've been able, by our internal count, to cover in some fashion about 1,200 adult titles, 100 children's books and 50 young adult books a year.
In our new configuration, we'll be able to cover somewhat fewer. Exactly how many fewer, we don't honestly know yet. There are obvious trade-offs: We could shorten the average length of our reviews, for example, and squeeze a few more in. But nobody here thinks that dumbing down our coverage is a good idea.
I'll tell you what I really don't want to do -- and I hope readers will understand and support this. I don't want to fall into reviewing only the most obvious books, the ones that are likely to sell well and reach a large audience in any case. As the non-fiction editor, I take pleasure and pride in assigning reviews of a fair number of books, often from university presses, that are almost certain not to sell many copies, and that may be tough going for a lot of readers. In those cases, our review may reach many more people than the book ever does, and the reviewer's task is to take difficult subject matter and explain what's intriguing and important about it. Take, for example, Yehudah Mirsky's recent review of two books about modern Hebrew language and poetry, or Dan Balz's review of Princeton professor Larry M. Bartels's statistics-laden book on the politics of income inequality. Or just look at the line-up of challenging, sometimes quirky titles that our Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda delves into each week with wit and erudition.
I'm aware that we already skip many wonderful books, and I fear that if we don't review them, who will? Right now, for example, I'm feeling guilty about Jonathan Peter Spiro's Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics and the Legacy of Madison Grant. It came out in January from the University of Vermont Press and has attracted relatively little notice, particularly compared to Barry Werth's Banquet at Delmonico's, which deals with some of the same issues (social Darwinism, the popularity of eugenics in early 20th century America) and which we did review.
Spiro, a professor at Castleton College in Vermont, has done what appears to me to be a yeoman's amount of original research on a fascinating and troubling figure: Madison Grant, the author of the 1916 bestseller, "The Passing of the Great Race," which Hitler famously called his "bible." Grant was a preservationist in the best sense of the word, a man who worked with John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt to create national parks, save the California redwoods, found the Bronx Zoo, and so on. But he was also a preservationist in the most outrageously twisted sense, a proponent of "scientific" racism who propounded the claim that blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic people were a master race and that inferior races should be eliminated. He successfully backed efforts to restrict immigration in the 1920s, and at the time of his death in 1937 he was, according to Spiro, planning to set up a fund to lobby Congress to deport all U.S. blacks to Africa. All this had its parallels, of course, in Nazi Germany: As Diane Ackerman described so evocatively in "The Zookeeper's Wife", the Nazi regime was loaded with animal lovers and preservationists, many influenced by Madison Grant.
-- Alan Cooperman
By Alan Cooperman |
January 30, 2009; 7:03 AM ET
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