Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
I was chided by my buddy Brian for devoting most of my previous post to the “mean book review” and not going into the dumbing down of the book review. To elaborate, along with ratcheting up the level of controversy, the New York Times Book Review is going to shift its focus away from more esoteric and literary fiction. In its place expect to see more non-fiction and more popular fiction reviewed. Also, the reviews themselves may become more bite-sized: “why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?” Now, I happen to think that the New York Times Book Review isn’t a terribly engaging read in its current incarnation. Typically, I pick it up to see which new books are being mentioned and read reviews of any books that I might have already read or that I am particularly interested in for some reason. All the reviews are essentially the same length and I find that they usually don’t keep me engaged if I’m not already interested in the book that’s being reviewed. I agree that there’s a problem, but I don’t think that the solution is capsule reviews full rancorous banter. Once you start down that road it’s only a matter of time before you start issuing Entertainment Weekly-style report card grades so that we can skip the reviews entirely. I would suggest that they devote at least a few of their pages for longer format reviews where, sure, the book is being reviewed, but it’s really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the topic at hand. The New Yorker and the Atlantic do this and they are among the most consistently readable and interesting reviews that I come across. John Updike’s review in the New Yorker of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is an example of this. Believe it or not, the review wasn’t altogether positive, but Updike managed to convey, nonetheless, the essence of the book, and I was able to tell from the first few paragraphs of his review that I wanted to read the book. Another New Yorker book review moment: I can’t even remember the name of the book that Louis Menand reviewed when I realized that I was far more enamored by the writing and breadth of knowledge of the reviewer than by the book being reviewed (which I can’t remember anymore anyway). Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club came out soon after and proved to be even more engaging than that first review that had turned me on to his writing. Those are good “book review experiences,” and if the New York Times Book Review could manage to provide one or two of those a week, they might find the positive change that they were looking for.An update at Poynter Online has Times executive editor Bill Keller saying, “We’re not turning the Book Review into Mad magazine.” And here’s the article that got me started on all this in the first place.
Today at the bookstore I met a young writer named Julie Orringer. She talked about Dave Eggers and Heidi Julavits and 826 Valencia, an exciting bunch. She mentioned that her first book, a collection of short stories called How to Breathe Underwater, will come out this Fall. A quick look at the website of one of the big book distributors confirmed that Knopf is expecting a strong debut. After I got home I did a little Google and discovered that a few of her stories are on the web. She has won several awards and fellowships and looks to be a real rising star. My favorite of the three stories that I read today originally appeared in Ploughshares. It’s called Pilgrims. I most enjoyed the ease with which she tells a story full of the troubles of adults from the point of view of children. I also read Care from the Barcelona Review and Note to Sixth-Grade Self from the Paris Review. I enjoyed these stories as well, though I felt that Note to Sixth-Grade Self was unecessarily clever. Keep an eye out for her. She seems likely to do impressive things.
If you haven’t seen the action in the comments of Garth’s reply to n+1’s column on litblogs, it’s worth a look, as the discussion has, shall we say, flowed onward. Mark, meanwhile, has begun posting “an irregular featurette” called “The n+1 Letters” in which he revisits the correspondence he has had with the magazine in question. Here at The Millions we tend to take a more dispassionate view the literary scuffles that crop up from time to time, but being in the middle of this one hasn’t been entirely unpleasant. It’s entertaining at the very least.Update: Scott has expressed his queasiness with the tack Mark is taking, and I’ll admit to sharing that discomfort. (I would not republish private correspondence without permission.) Also, n+1 editor Keith Gessen has now left a comment at the original post.