The New York Times Book Review and Me

I generally keep my posts to 4-5 paragraphs so my busy friends will consider reading them. I get it! This one’s longer, though. Look at it as a loping re-entry after I let the summer and my novel-writing grab my attention away. (The following article was first published under the same title on Blogcritics.)

On Sunday mornings in Maine, my husband drives to the island’s general store around 7:30 and comes back with two egg sandwiches, a hazelnut coffee for me, and the New York Times. He hands me the Book Review section and the Magazine (read: crossword puzzle). I settle into the glider chair in front of the harbor-view picture window (swoon) and start with the Book Review. This past Sunday I made notes on the pages as I worked through the review, so that I could share with you the sorts of things I focus on. You cannot call me scientific about it.

Page 1: I always read the front page book review(s), whether I care about the topic or not. These are getting special attention for a reason, I figure, and will probably be bestsellers, so I should know about them. This Sunday’s front-page review was written by Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I loved). Her review was on Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. I’ve been seeing the book a lot—it has a catchy cover (not that the NYT Book Review stoops to showing covers, unless it’s in paid advertising by the publishers). Egan’s review is generally positive, calling the book “rich” and “comic.” She emphasizes that the “novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarantino …,” with which I sort of stop reading. But that’s just me. (So, even though I just said “I always read the front page book review(s),” I have already stretched the truth.)

Pages 2–5: These are ads by publishers, the table of contents, a lead-in by “The Editors,” and letters from prior-review readers. I scan all that. This Sunday I am caught by the page 4 ad for Jonathan Evison’s The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. I’ve been seeing that cover a lot, too, so I read the ad’s blurbs and learn that according to the Boston Globe the book is “Little Miss Sunshine meets Rain Man … Big-hearted, and very funny, and full of hope.” What I don’t learn for another eight pages is that there is a NYT review of the book on page 12 in today’s issue. It is a pleasant surprise when I find it, since I have just been intrigued by the ad. (It is overall a positive review, by the way.)

Page 6: Yeah! An interview with Joyce Carol Oates, the prolific writer and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. I always enjoy reading about JCO. In this interview, she names the last truly great book she read as being James Joyce’s Ulysses. This kicks off a conversation with my husband in which I admit having never read it, and he admits having read only part before turning to Cliffs Notes for the rest. (Today, I check Cliffs Notes and decide I won’t even go that far.)

Pages 7–19: Here’s how I approach the guts of the Book Review section: I look at the review title and subtitle (different from the titling of the book being reviewed) and decide if I have any interest or should have any interest. If I’m not sure, I skip to the last paragraph in the review for an indication of the reviewer’s takeaway for the book. Since my predilections are for biography, memoir, and fiction, I tend to read the full reviews for those—but as you’ve already seen, I may quit on a review partway through. If the fiction is a book of short stories, I skim quickly and usually take a pass. If a review is science or social science, I often read it. If it’s war or history, I skip with only a tad bit of guilt. If it’s children’s books, I skip with no guilt at all.

I get my history from reading historical novels or biographies. For instance, in this week’s Book Review, I am intrigued by John Guy’s Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel: A Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Story Retold.

Another benefit of checking out the NYT Book Review is for gift ideas. Thanks to this week’s review of Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety I know what I will be giving a certain someone for his birthday this year.

Pages 20–26: The bestseller lists (combined print and e-book, separated print, e-book, and types of print) are fun to look at, to see what’s topping the lists and to read snippets of extraneous info the editors provide on some of the books each week. Lately I’ve been pleased to note that I seem to be reading more nonfiction these days than I used to. Guess I’m starting to grow up.

Page 27: The last interior page is always an essay, and I rarely read it. (I’m not all grown up yet.) Besides, I’m itching by now to start the crossword puzzle in the NYT Magazine.

Page 28: This is always a back-cover advertisement page that some publisher(s) will have paid dearly for.

Some people prefer The New York Review of Books, and so I took a year’s subscription to it over a year ago. I never read a single complete article. It demands a high degree of sustained reading that feels more like work than pleasure. I’ll never have the level of concentration required. I prefer the variety and brevity of the NYT Book Review.

Tell me, do you read the NYT Book Review and if so, how do you approach it? Do you tackle the whole thing, or are you like me, picking and choosing?

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