NYTBR Needs a Better Makeover

A quick correction: After having Mark Wilson’s name come up twice in two days, I had to call him. We’ve re-established email contact, and I sent him the link to “Robben Island.” I made a mistake. Mark was teaching at U Mass Amherst when Mother went to speak at Hampshire. Mark reports that he served as her escort and visited my parents several times during his year teaching in Massachusetts.

To the main event: I’m posting this entry before the Times puts up its paywall and before the material becomes too stale.

The paper needs to change the name of the Book Review to something that reflects its new and expanding mission into the world of the technorati. Just as reviews and other information about books appear elsewhere in the paper (Business, Style, Arts & Leisure – see “Ode to Gorey”), the Book Review encompasses reviews of games – well, OK, the reviews are in book form “The Computer Made Me Do It.” Like Alec Soth I would hope that the Times added more reviews about “art books,” even books about type.

It was unfortunate that the “Computer” review appeared the same day as the Times instituted its new Best Seller lists. Now instead of a page for hardcover and two pages for paper, we have a graphic with the top combined print and e-book bestsellers, fifteen each fiction and non-. On February 20, the list started with thumbnails of the books and now includes a graph that bears little or no relationship to the list. Last week it was longest running nonfiction. (M. Scott Peck still leads the pack with The Road Less Traveled.) This week “Fiction Mainstays” lists “five hardcover fiction titles that have been in one of the top 35 spots of extended list the most often over the past year.” I’m sure this information is useful to the people who track it, but I’m also sure that they are all possessed of computer code that can pull that information out at the drop of a hat. The next page includes the hardcover lists (also 15 titles each) and the “Inside the List” and “Editor’s Choice” columns, followed by the top 25 e-books in both genres, followed by the page of fiction paperbacks (top 20 each of trade and mass-market), plus the “Paperback Row” column, and ending with another half-page with the top 20 nonfiction works, separated from “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous,” which includes ten each hardcover and paperback. And in case this pile of 190 titles with some duplicates leaves one craving more, the section opens, “For more titles, more rankings and a full explanation of our methodology,” followed by the Times’ web site.

My other complaint involved William Logan’s review of three Elizabeth Bishop works, her correspondence, and collections of prose and poetry. Like a great many reviews, this one seems more a vehicle for the reviewer to show off and less of a critique that will allow me to decide whether I want to spend money for the works under review. Logan is particularly venal as he trashes The New Yorker where Bishop’s work appeared as “a middlebrow journal for people who would like to be highbrows – and perhaps for highbrows who love a little slumming.” I figured it was sour grapes because the magazine had rejected his work. Surprise, surprise! He is part of that vast middlebrowness, published as recently as December.

I guess I’ll have to turn elsewhere to find out if the letters are worth reading since Logan’s major complaint is about dull footnotes. As to the other books, they will go on the “to read” list, which grows ever longer by the day.

In the interest of avoiding a literary (?) brawl I will just say that I’ve always admired Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. My favorite is “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to Robert Lowell, who had in turn dedicated “Skunk Hour” to her. The images in those two poems endure: Bishop evokes the stars and the planets with fire balloons and an assortment of wildlife roused by the fire. That armadillo follows in the path of Lowell’s skunks “white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire.” Favorite portion:

The season’s ill–
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue.

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