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 Alan Cooperman
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Hi. Thanks for taking the time to explain the editorial process and your own "leanings" in selecting books to review. For what it's worth from one long-time Book World reader and admirer, I rely on you and other editors to select books that I might otherwise never read -- even if sometimes they are (at least for me, occasionally) a bit too erudite, or deal with some historical obscurity. I'm reading Jeffrey Taylor's book, now -- Murderers in Mausoleums -- reviewed recently in Book World. I feel at times, that I am with him as he travels the ethnically-rabid newly-emerging states of Central Asia, and frankly glad that I'm not. I would not have read it without the Book World review. I remember years ago reading Antony Beevor's history of the battle of Stalingrad on an August afternoon on my screened-in porch and feeling cold to the marrow -- a feeling I would not have had absent Book World. Anyway, I hope very much that you are able to continue exercising your discretion as described above. I can't help but feel though, when I see the growth of Post products like the Sunday Source and the diminishing of Book World, that it might be a tough slog. I remember decades ago reading John Leonard's and Christopher Lehman-Haupt's reviews of university press publications in the Times and now read Janet Maslin's reviews of thrillers and pulp mysteries and wonder about the future for newspaper literary criticism. Anyway, good luck.

Posted by: juliaseymour | January 30, 2009 10:57 AM

Julia, is your Janet Maslin reference intended to be dismissive? I ask because I always read her film criticism, but haven't kept up with her book reviews, other than to know that she's a huge bolsterer of D.C.'s own George Pelecanos. Local boosterism aside, I think writers like Pelecanos and Richard Price are writing some of the best fiction out there these days, regardless of whether they're referred to as "thrillers" or "mysteries." In my book, any critic who grapples seriously with that writing is to be commended.

Posted by: Discman | January 30, 2009 2:34 PM

Hmmm. I'm not sure "bolsterer" is a word. But that's what happens when you read too many mysteries and thrillers! :)

Posted by: Discman | January 30, 2009 2:35 PM


Yes, I guess my comment about the New York Times recent reviews could be read as "dismissive," although I was really trying - probably quite poorly -- to make a larger point. The importance of Book World and the New York Times Book Review, for me, is to help me find books I might not otherwise find. I like Richard Price and George Pelecanos too, or at least some of their novels and they are, as your note suggests I guess, popular fiction rather than literary fiction (although with Richard Price, I'm not sure that's true). And it's true, that on occasion, Book World has directed me to mysteries and thrillers than are fun to read, and engaging. But I've been disappointed by what I think I see (if I'm reading history correctly) as an increased emphasis on popular culture and popular fiction in book reviews. Serious book reviews have only so much space, and I think that they should be devoted to serious books. The Times seems to have concluded, given declining readership and cratering stock prices I guess, that it needs to "pander?" to popular tastes in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. The point that I was trying to make is that I was very glad to read the editor's description of how books are chosen for the Book Review. His (her?) bias is the same as mine -- to be taken seriously as a source of literary criticism, the reviewer's taste should be discriminating, and should help the reader find books of which he might otherwise be unaware. I'm not saying that the Book World should become another New York Review of Books, for west side intelligentsia. But when book reviews are served up like fortunes in fortune cookies, as in the Sunday Source, I worry about the direction and quality of critical review in Book World. The posting by the editor this morning helped renew my faith.

Posted by: juliaseymour | January 30, 2009 2:57 PM

I grew up on the NY Times Book Review and will never let it go, but I know it is not comprehensive. In recent years I have come to the WaPo's Book World to fill the gaps. I found in BW a warmth and outlook missing in the NYTBR and am sorry to see it gone. It's not just Book World; it is Michael Dirda's live online discussion and other corners that have been knocked off. At least we have the Short Stack . . . . for now.

Posted by: cebeling | January 30, 2009 7:10 PM

Apparently BookWorld is already messed up. I could not bring up the reviews of Yardley, Dirda or Charles this morning with no explanation. It will be extremely inconvenient to look for them on different sites. Why? Sounds like an insidious effort to ruin BookWorld and marginalize the low percentage of literate people remaining in the Washington Post's online readership. Will it be necessary to resort to pictures, eventually?

Posted by: ricosgirl | January 31, 2009 9:50 AM

The name of the book makes it sound a whole lot more terrible.

Posted by: Biblibio | January 31, 2009 1:39 PM

Is there any way you can keep Book World intact on Sunday? I've loved it for years. Book World is my signal to light up the fireplace and relax with the Post. The scattered reviews during the week just would not compensate. Plus, what about Mary Karr's Poet's Choice? The Literary Calendar? Please reconsider.

I recall the Post saying that most newspapers do not have a separate book section. What about the NY Times, your chief competitor? Will they be dropping their Book Review section? Maybe the Post has decided to drop down a level in its competitive circles.

There is a silly Sunday section about entertainment, not Style but some other fluffy section, that contains nothing of interest. I do not recall its name. Why not drop that one instead?

Posted by: EdDC | February 3, 2009 9:44 AM

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