Sunday, December 22, 2019

Great Books As Seen From Book Reviews Spanning 100 Years

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When I purchased a used copy of Books of the Century; A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas, and Literature at the Strand Bookstore in New York City over the summer, I mistakenly thought it was just another compilation of what one person or group believes were the best books over a period of time.  But upon finally getting to look through it more closely, I realize it is far more than one’s best-of list. It is an amazing journey into 20th century books and their book reviews that provide some amazing historical context to the world of books.

Over 250 books are covered in this fat, 664-page tome.  The New York Times Book Review editor (at the time the book was  published two decades ago), Charles McGrath. spent time reading through old book reviews from a hundred years of reviews and presented a book of reviews as they originally appeared, adding in a publishing timeline of factoids that should interest bibliophiles and historians alike.  

The New York Times Book Review still remains America’s most widely read publication of the literary arts, cherished for its intelligence, insights, and history of credible reporting.

McGrath notes that pouring through the volumes of old newspapers was a challenging experience.  He writes of the well-preserved paper collection: “They are also a chastening and depressing catalogue of once-famous books and authors now utterly forgotten. In those yellowing newsprint pages, mighty literary reputations rise and fall…”

His book, the editor admits, snubs some deserving books just as the book review section had. Space, prejudice, and personal tastes always dictate there will be winners and losers that don’t always result from the merits.

“Book reviews are, by their very nature, even more transitory, more forgotten, than the books they purport to evaluate, and there’s  something slightly self-defeating about creating yet another book, eventually to be forgotten, by assembling within hard covers writing that was never intended (as most reviews are not) to be more than of the moment. If you look at enough reviews, though, and at reviews over a long enough period, amid the accidental changes you can spot some trends ... that seem instructive, if not reliably permanent,” writes McGrath.

So which authors are covered in this book?  It’s a lot of recognizable names – Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and W.E.B. DuBois – and those are just from the first decade.  But there certainly are books and authors in there that are no longer talked about or read.  Only the fittest survive.

The volume also reprints interviews with such great writers as John Updike, Eudora Welty, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and D.H. Lawrence.

Maybe one of the best things about this book is its recognition of The New York Times getting the review wrong.  It headlines these mistakes with the word “Ooops!”  

Look at a July 15, 1951 review of The Catcher in the Rye.  It says: “This book, though it’s too long, gets kind of monotonous.  And he should’ve cut out a lot about those jerks and all that crumby school.  They depress me.”

In a June 13, 1920 review of Virginia Wolf’s The Voyage Out it says “the reader is disappointed“ and  “there is little in this offering to make it stand out from the tuck of mediocre novels which make far less literary pretension.”

In an 1897 review of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells it says: “The scientific machinery is not very delicately constructed and the imagination of the reader is decidedly overtaxed.”

The October 22, 1961 review of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 says: “It fails here because half its incidents are farcical and fantastic.”

So if you learn anything from a book that pays tribute to great books and book reviews, it is that each reader should decide on the value of a book. It helps to have professionals guide us and call to our attention the books that deserve a reading, but we should never defer all of our reading decisions to any one source or expert.

Here’s a sampling of the historic dates sprinkled throughout the book:

1904 – Peter Pan opens as a play by J.M. Barrie, but the book was not published till 1928.

1923 – Kahlil Gibran brings forth The Prophet; it is still Alfred A. Knopf’s best-selling book.

1930 – Sinclair Lewis is the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

1935 – The WPA is created.  Many writers make it through the Depression on the Federal Writer’s Project.

1946 – Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care appears for the first time; its publishers will later call it the best seller of the century; others declare it the best seller in American publishing history (not counting The Bible).

1953 – Casino Royale, the first James Bond Book, is published – to little acclaim.

1964 – Jean-Paul Sartre choses to decline the Nobel Prize in literature.

1966 – Legal publication in the United States of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, 216 years after it first appeared in England.

1971 – Abbie Hoffman causes some disruption in bookstores with Steal This Book.

1986 – Robert Penn Warren the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry is named the first poet laureate of the United States.

1996 – A Manhattan court rules that Random House, which has sued to get back a $1.2 million advance paid to the actress and steamy – book writer Joan Collins, must instead pay her an additional $1 million.

Who knows what you’ll come to discover in next week’s edition of The New York Times Book Review, but upon reflection of old reviews we know there should be some great books worthy of discovery.  But don’t forget to read books that are not listed anywhere or given five-star reviews. 

You are the critic of books for your life.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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