Quick Hits

News in the Books

By posted at 9:50 am on January 9, 2004 0

I recently noticed a couple of interesting books about the newspaper biz, and, more specifically, the New York Times. City Room is Arthur Gelb’s memoir of his career with the paper. He was there from 1944 to 1999, a career that saw him rise from night copyboy to managing editor. The book is an account of the vast changes in the business over that time, both in process of producing the paper and in the business itself. Over time, manual typewriters and wise guy reporters have given way to laptop computers and media conglomerates; Gelb, however, retains the ability to see the inherent specialness that lies at the center of the “paper of record.” Backstory: Inside the Business of News, on the other hand, is a more critical exploration of the news media. Ken Auletta is the media reporter for the New Yorker, and this collection of articles from the last ten years serves to paint a picture of the thorough modernization of mass media. The centerpiece of the book is a profile of Howell Raines the controversial executive editor of the Times who was ousted in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. I’ve always enjoyed Auletta’s articles, so it would have been nice to see new material from him rather than this collection of previously published material, some of which is no longer extremely relevant.

Vintage This and Vintage That

If you’ve been inside a bookstore in the last few days, you may have noticed a display featuring a collection of sleek new books. Vintage, a paperback division of Random House devoted to putting out paperback editions of modern literary fiction, has put out a classy series of “readers” which compile various snippits of work from 12 of the most luminous 20th century writers into individual volumes. The selection of writers is interesting and fairly eclectic (necessarily so, for reasons I will get into shortly). Martin Amis, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Langston Hughes, Barry Lopez, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, and Oliver Sacks each have their own attractive little book. Now, there are two schools of thought on this sort of thing. The first is that by pulling easily digestible segments from this or that book you can snare the more cautious, less adventurous reader by offering something that seems less daunting. I can imagine this scenario: cautious reader is a bit intimidated by the idea of picking up a book by Nabokov or Hughes and diving in, but when they see these slim, little Vintage “readers,” they think, “Hey, I can handle this, I’ll give it a go.” After reading a “teaser” chapter from Lolita, our cautious reader is hooked, and everybody is happy. The world has gained a more adventurous reader and Vintage (which is to say Random House) has sold an additional book, Lolita. But don’t throw a parade just yet. “Readers” like this, or digests as they are sometimes known, have been around for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of years. Individual books are something of a luxury compared to earlier times, when condensed versions of books and digests were far more affordable than the real thing, in terms of bang for the buck, for the general reading public. Nonetheless, I think there are problems with this particular series, primarily that it is a little too easy to look at these books as “movie trailers” or catalogs with pricetags for other Vintage publications. And, indeed, at just $9.95, these books aren’t meant to land on readers’ bookshelves, they are meant to sell more books. Even if I try to keep things in perspective, to acknowledge that it is better that they are hawking Didion and Munro and Naipaul rather than the Atkins diet or American Idol, I would still prefer that if someone is going to walk into a bookstore with intention of purchasing a single book (as is so often the case), that they read an entire book by any author at all, whether he or she measures up to James Baldwin or not. I don’t know if the inherent “goodness” of the Vintage writers can overcome the sales pitch packaging, which brings me to another point. Though these books are marketed as a collection of the best of the best, the really only represent the best of Vintage books. A reader who is overly devoted to this series will miss countless amazing writers. Finally, there is a predictably PC, overly marketed quality to the whole endeavor: among the twelve, there are two African American writers, two Hispanics, and two non-minority women, and since the folks in editorial feel like they’ve got their bases covered in that department, the folks in marketing worked up a catchy sales pitch, Vintage this and Vintage that, though it sounds to me like they are selling Vodka, not Murakami.

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So, thoughts? Am I overreacting? Let me know by pressing the “comments” button below.

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