Monday, August 15, 2005

Dear Mr. Tanenhaus,

By critiquing only the latest books, the New York Times Book Review has helped ensure that our literary culture remains fresh and original -- and no less importantly, that our publishing industry remains profitable.

That said, however, I would encourage you to revisit the Review's central assumptions: first, that your readers are primarily interested in the newest releases; and second, that when they are not, the reader may refer to your review of a book at the time of its publication.

Although the first assumption still holds, your past success has concealed just how problematic the second is. And the trouble is this. Whereas any honest critic will admit that reviews are at least somewhat informed by context, the fact that you rely upon coetaneous reviews implies that you regard criticism as somehow a-historical -- ie, that you view assessments of a work's value as somehow divorced from their own literary moment. (Further, the very quality of your reviews actually works against you here. Because your critics are so attuned to contextual nuance -- and the reviews themselves so awash with cultural reference -- it's all but impossible not to regard your reviews as being historically contingent as well.)

Again, your success to date has obscured the significance of this problem. In the past readers who sought contemporary reviews of older works had no real options to turn to. But with the proliferation of web reviews and literary blogs, that is no longer the case. Should you fail to meet this demand, others will.

So my suggestion is this: set aside one review a week for a top scholar or writer, and then turn them loose. Let him or her review whichever book they please, regardless of publication date.

This way, whenever major news occurs, the Book Review would always be able to remain relevant. For instance, should Iran's mullahs finally fall, you could solicit a political theorist such as Michael Ignatieff, and then grant him or her the freedom to review, say, On Revolution by Hannah Arendt. Alternately, you could reverse the process: after the next tsunami, you could decide upon a review of Murakami's After the Quake, and then set about soliciting a critic to provide it.

This wouldn't be a perfect solution, but it would at least be a start. Your primary focus would still be the latest releases, and rightly so. Yet by providing your readers a backward glance, you'd be able to acknowledge the modest transience of all your reviews even as you also accentuate their urgency.

Thank you, and sincerely,

Chris Meserole


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