Book Reviews Aren't Dead (Just Ask The Wall Street Journal)

The newspaper's books section is excellent and exemplifies how reviewing is still a well-valued aspect of American journalism.


Wall Street Journal

For those of us who rely on book reviews to feature what we write or publish, the conventional wisdom is that traditional newspaper and magazine sections have been sharply cut back. And it is true that standalone book coverage in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe, among other periodicals, has been folded in elsewhere in the paper and space allotted to books--measured strictly in inches--has been reduced. But the impression that books are a major casualty of a general depression in the economics of journalism is overstated. Upscale magazines such as The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harpers, the Economist, and even Foreign Affairs consider books integral to their identity. The New York Review of Books, as I wrote recently, is a sophisticated journal combining literature, politics, and social criticism aimed at an audience, bigger now than it has ever been, accustomed to quality judgment and assessment.

The New York Times dailies and Sunday Book Review are still the standard for mass media, although five precious pages of the Sunday section are now devoted to slicing and dicing of bestseller lists by format--print books, e-books, and combinations thereof. On the Internet, with a minimum of effort, readers can find ample reviews, by linking to a variety of online critics and websites devoted to books. Social media--Twitter and Facebook, among others--comprise a bustling community of like-minded readers numbering in the millions. Public radio--particularly Fresh Air and other major shows--have strong commitments to books as mainstays for their programming. So, all in all, the presumption that book reviews are being sidelined in the digital age is exaggerated.

And one of the best book sections in this new era has turned up in the Wall Street Journal. The country's largest newspaper, with a print and digital circulation of 2.1 million, launched the book section in September 2010 as part of the paper's expansion into weekends with a Saturday edition. Like the daily reviews, the book section is under the aegis of the editorial page, which is known for its forthright conservative perspective. Occasionally, that point of view seems to influence the choice of reviewer, particularly in politically oriented nonfiction. But the quality of the pieces and the breadth of the subjects is nonetheless impressive. The graphics are vivid, and for a newspaper that long limited itself to small line drawings, it is still surprising to see illustrations in color and reflecting careful selection designed to underscore the theme of the books. The six-page broadsheet is a pull-out in the Review section, which also covers, according to its front-page listings: culture, science, commerce, humor, politics, language, technology, art, and ideas. Excerpts and book-related essays in the Review have caused a stir. An adaptation of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother a year ago sparked a lively debate about Asian versus western child-raising and lifted the book to bestseller lists. Softer subjects are in a companion section called Off-Duty, devoted to cooking, eating, style, fashion, design, decorating, adventure, travel gear, and gadgets.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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