Readers of this section will have noticed that we subscribe to the poet Samuel Rogers's maxim: Every time a new book is published, read an old one. We regularly review and run essays on previously published works—some from the recent past, some centuries old. Our aim is to discuss, and to help acquaint our readers with, ideas and literature (by which we mean history, biography, and social, cultural, and literary criticism as well as fiction, drama, and poetry)—not simply to report what's au courant. The most recent history of, say, the high Middle Ages may be widely reviewed and may bedeck the display tables of all the bookstores, but should the reader turn to it rather than to, for instance, R. W. Southern's captivating The Making of the Middle Ages, published in 1953?
Books are a business as well as an art. Every season will see new nonfiction works on old subjects, whether the public needs them or not—and the quality of remakes for books isn't much higher than that for movies. To be sure, scholarship continually accretes; but much of that scholarship is recondite (or irrelevant) and merely conforms to the fads of academe. We'll tell readers about an important new argument, but we also want to highlight the clearest, most intelligent, or most imaginative treatments of a given subject, regardless of their publication date. Fiction, of course, is another matter. Although we regularly re-examine the classics and draw readers' attention to undeservedly neglected older novels and short stories, it's important to assess the trends—encouraging and otherwise—of this constantly evolving art form.
"Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores " (July/August 2001)
Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-A-Million have enormously enriched the nation's cultural life. By Brooke Allen
Given our embrace of not-new books, we find two developments particularly heartening. The first is the burgeoning of the chain superstores. For better or worse, when readers want to find a book about a subject, be it mortgages or the Spanish Civil War, most of them browse the shelves of the bookstore, not the library. The chains stock a remarkable number of relatively obscure, not recently published works, which means that stores in suburban malls now have, say, philosophy and ancient-history sections of a breadth and depth that fifteen years ago could be found only in a very few university and urban bookstores. Second, more and more publishing ventures are reissuing old books. Modern Library and Everyman's Library (both revived in the 1990s),