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.

Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper unit has been ensnared for months in a phone hacking scandal that led to the closing of the News of the World, multiple arrests of journalists and executives, and the resignation of Les Hinton, chief executive of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, whose previous job was in London. Murdoch's News Corporation is a vast enterprise, with cable and broadcast television and movies the principal drivers of revenue and profit. A book section in the Wall Street Journal is a small corner of the empire, with little in the way of lucrative advertising (the only ad in the February 11-12 issue was placed by HarperCollins, another News Corporation company). Not surprisingly, perhaps, given all the furor, the Journal's quality book coverage has received less attention than it deserves. What I especially like is the eclectic choice of books, many of which are published by respected but smaller houses and show substantial attention to the mix of subjects and reviewers.

The lead review in the recent section covered three books marking the centennial of the Girl Scouts, with particular praise for the founder, Juliette Gordon Low, known as "Daisy." The reviewer, Amy Finnerty, is an editor of World Affairs Journal. Stacy A. Cordery's biography of Law "gives us the unexpurgated life," Finnerty writes, "one that might make you want to shield the eyes of the nearest Brownie Scout but one that also lends depth and color to the American Girl Scouts founder's story." By my count, there are sixteen reviews in the weekend section, of varying length, with an overwhelming emphasis on nonfiction, but space for a round-up of children's books. Among the other books reviewed is a survey (a meditation) on Greece's contribution to European culture, a study of China's civil war (which coincided with our own), and a biography of Edward Burne-Jones, called The Last Pre-Raphaelite.

Credit for the section and the weekday reviews goes to its editors, led by Robert Messsenger, who came from the Weekly Standard and the New York Sun, which had a run of several years as a daily with a high-brow conservative cast that has many of the characteristics that show up in the weekend Journal. My preference is for the print newspaper, but the digital version includes videos and a variety of other online elements, particularly discussion groups and recommendations. Whatever format you choose, when it comes to books, the Wall Street Journal has contributed admirably to their coverage at a time when added attention is especially welcome.