Our book today is one of the de facto Bibles of the Ink Chorus: Books of the Century, a 2000 update of the 1998 anthology of book reviews and author interviews from the first century of the New York Times Book Review, a great big book with a hideous cover, edited by Charles McGrath and dating back to 1897, and the whole thing illustrated with Mark Summers etchings.
The New York Times Book Review today holds a monolithic (if slightly fracture-lined by enormously popular – and insurgently populist – phenomena like Goodreads) sway over book-publishing in the entire English-speaking world, of course; to be noticed by it is to have arrived, as an author, and to be anointed by it is recognized as luck of such prodigious proportions as to be written in to most big-ticket book contracts (X number of weeks on the legendary Bestseller List = an X-sized bonus, etc.). The days when wealthy and literarily pretentious inhabitants of the Upper West Side would phone Brentano’s and have a box of that week’s NYT bestsellers sent round may be over (and were richly satirized even when they were still alive and kicking), but the fact remains that the enormous bulk of middle-brow readers in the West are guided in their choices by the slowly-changing roster of books on that same Bestseller list – and, to a lesser but still very strong extent, by the Book Review itself, which winnows the flood of new books to reach its offices every day and distills that flood to a few precious places in the insert every weekend.
In the minds of the literary middlebrow, those elite books are the pick of an unruly litter, and although that’s never been true (oh, the veritable mountains of crap on which the Times has lavished premium space … any long-time reader of the Book Review could recount his own list of horror stories), the prestige of the berth has very often meant that regardless of the quality of the books being reviewed, the Times could always command the best reviewers.
Books of the Century is thickly populated with the best reviewers, from forgotten names like William Phelps and Rose Lee to stalwarts like R. L. Duffus and John Crawford to rising-star public intellectuals like Alfred Kazin or, in a 1979 review of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Frank Kermode at his most soporific:
At all great crises of human affairs (and to be in the midst of such a crisis is what we all want, for it makes us more interesting, is indeed an aspect of our narcissism) a pattern of thought and feeling forms that has decadence as its motif. But almost invariably it coexists with an antithetical pattern devoted to renovation. The two patterns run into each other when we say that the old order is falling apart to make room for the new.
And as the decades roll on and the journal’s prestige continued to grow, the Book Review could more often recruit published authors to do the reviewing dirty work on their fellow authors – in fact, the arcane and very public science of ‘matching’ reviewer with book became a kind of spectator sport in the literary world, quite often with inspired results – Reynolds Price reviewing Song of Solomon, for instance, or Kenneth Koch interviewing Allen Ginsberg, or, in a virtual implosion of waspishness, Joan Didion reviewing John Cheever.
Sometimes the matchings could be mis-matchings, like getting an ‘intellectual’ writer like Stop-Time author Frank Conroy to review John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy in 1986 – a pairing that was salvaged by the fact that a) Conroy had a secret sweet-tooth for thrillers and b) Le Carre has always been much better than his knee-jerk dismissers have wanted to see. It didn’t stop Conroy from writing half-asleep prose, but the intention was good:
The author has gone to great lengths to create a tense balance between the narrative drive of the plot and the intelligent, artful richness of the style. I say tense because the book is a page-turner as well as a very satisfying read – you want to move fast so you can find out what will happen and you want to go slow so as to relish the writing. Out of respect for this remarkable achievement, discretion will prevail.
And sometimes, the pairings produced reviews that are flashes of genius, the kind of thing that genuinely ought not to be wrapping fish the following week. Sometimes, an reviewer comes to just the perfect book at just the perfect time – Irving Howe reviewing Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, say, or Pauline Kael on Ingmar Bergman screenplays, or, from 1997, Martin Amis reviewing Don DeLillo’s Underworld and having a self-evidently grand time doing it:
Expect a lot from the next sentence. Among its other virtues, the title of Don DeLillo’s heavily brilliant new book gives a convenient answer to the Big Question about the American novel: Where has the mainstream been hiding? The grand old men, the universal voices of the late-middle century (predominantly the great Jews, and John Updike), are getting older and grander, but the land they preside over looked to be shrinking. Furthermore, I seemed that their numbers were not being replenished by writers of comparable centrality. Was this an epochal change, a major extinction? No. It was a strategic lull.
Gems like that abound in Books of the Century – in fact, as intensely satisfying as the book is, it leaves you yearning to see counterparts from every other major literary review in the English language. The TLS and the London Review of Books used to publish such anthologies on a regular basis, but no longer. Unless I’m much mistaken, The New Republic, Harper’s, and the Atlantic have never done anthologies of their book-criticism. Open Letters Monthly has only produced one such anthology – a sought-after collector’s item! – and that was half a decade ago.
All the more reason why Books of the Century is an essential volume on the old Ink Chorus bookshelf!
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