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Book reviews, Salman Rushie, and Stephen Colbert

Marcy and I were talking this afternoon about the time and effort Kirkus put into their reviews, calling us with questions after having carefully examined the volumes (I won’t say “read,” because no one is going to read the whole of an encyclopedia to review it). This reminded me that I have been meaning to post a link to a widely circulated article by my friend Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and director of the Los Angeles Book Festival (that’s how we met: I was thinking of a Berkshire Book Festival and Victor Navasky, a long-time part-time Berkshire resident, said I should talk to Steve). Book review space in newspapers is being drastically cut, and this has led to much hand-wringing on the part of authors, editors, and publishers, and to some important discussion about the role of reviews. Here’s Steve’s article, “Goodbye to All That: The decline of the coverage of books isn’t new, benign, or necessary,” and just a few lines:

For many writers, this threat to the nation’s delicate ecology of literary and cultural life is cause for considerable alarm. Last spring, the novelist Richard Ford decried the disappearance of book reviews. Michael Connelly, an ex-Los Angeles Times reporter and now a bestselling mystery writer, denounced the contraction of his former paper’s book section. Salman Rushdie, in a rare public appearance, went on The Colbert Report to voice his displeasure.

Aren’t you sorry you missed that, Salman Rushie and Stephen Colbert? I might actually buy it on iTunes. Meanwhile, I went to the Simons Rock College Library last night to get Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte, and also chose a couple of novels from a section of the library that looked awfully neglected. I was curious about Charlotte Bronte because I’d just read, or reread, Jane Eyre (after a gap of several decades), not having been able to find anything new at Heathrow that I wanted to read. I wonder how many people are like me, frustrated not to be able to find enough new books they can be absorbed in and enthralled by. Book reviews ought to help us find them; my question is: do they? Obviously they don’t help me as much as I would like.

Thursday: The Columbia Journalism Review just sent this link to a podcast, very handy.

To further explore the themes in Steve Wasserman’s “The Case of the Vanishing Book Review,” we hosted a panel discussion September 19. Five book-world experts—Wasserman, Peter Osnos, Elisabeth Sifton, Carlin Romano, and Mark Sarvas–engaged in a lively blend of dialogue and debate that addressed some heady questions: Should book sections be essentially populist? What makes them elitist? Why are they shrinking, and how are reviews faring on the Web? How will books themselves thrive in an increasingly digitized world? And what makes a book review any good in the first place?

An audio recording of the event is below. We hope you enjoy it.

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