‘Books of Century’ will give hours of reading pleasure

November 15, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

"Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas and Literature" (Times Books, 1998) is going to be a popular book this holiday season and it’s a bargain, too.

It’s stuffed with interesting lists, reviews, interviews, recommendations and historical facts about books and writers (1944: William S. Burroughs becomes a junkie). It weighs a ton and is more than 600 pages long – that’s a lot for only $30.

The editor of this vast wealth of information is Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review since 1995. The Times Book Review, we are reminded, is America’s oldest book review supplement, which began publication in 1896. In 1911 it began appearing on Sundays instead of Saturdays and has since become a weekend ritual for countless readers.

The book also includes notable letters to the editor including one from Jack London responding to an unfavorable review, one from Alan Greenspan defending "Atlas Shrugged," and one from Timothy Leary attacking an unfavorable review of a Janice Joplin biography.

It also includes early reviews of works that missed the mark, aiming either too high or too low. One of Hemingway’s minor works ("Across the River and into the Trees") was enthusiastically over-praised while one of my favorite authors, John Cheever, was mercilessly whipped by this unnamed reviewer in 1943:

"Certainly (happy) people must exist but Mr. Cheever will have none of them. As a result, the characters in his own unhappy world have an astonishing and tortured similarity. ‘The Way Some People Live’ is the perfect book for an up-and-coming dentist’s anteroom. A few of those tense moments spent with Mr. Cheever’s people and their off-center agonies will buck you up no end for the ordeal ahead."

Mr. Cheever must have raced straight for a pitcher of martinis and pack of cigarettes after reading that review.

The notable reviews of each decade are organized in chapters. Turn to your favorite period of recent history and you’ll be reminded of what you read in those days.

Meyer Levin writes a beautiful review of Anne Frank’s "Diary of a Young Girl," which appeared in the Book Review on June 15, 1952; John Updike reviews "Franny and Zooey" by J.D. Salinger on Sept. 17, 1961; and Erma Bombeck reviews "Free to Be...You and Me" edited by Marlo Thomas on April 21, 1974.

An "Editors’ Choice" includes a brief description of the best books of each year. The 11 entries for 1997 are: "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth, "American Scripture" by Pauline Maier, "The Blue Flower" by Penelope Fitzgerald, "Huxley" by Adrian Desmond, "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, "Mason & Dixon" by Thomas Pynchon, "The Puttermesser Papers" by Cynthia Ozick, "Toward the End of Time" by John Updike, "Underworld" by Don DeLillo, "Virginia Woolf" by Hermione Lee, and "The Whole Shebang" by Timothy Ferris.

I’m glad I’m not the poor unfortunate Book Review reviewer who said something kind about "The Bridges of Madison County," the slight book by Robert James Waller that became a huge best-seller. The very fact that it was reviewed at all got a hindsight "Oops!" from the editors.

Some reviews are just plain puzzling. On April 27, 1969, Dick Schaap reviewed Mario Puzo’s "The Godfather." Yes, "Portnoy’s Complaint" had just been published, too, but for some reason Schaap felt it would be humorous to compare the two novels.

"There are strong similarities between Michael Coreleone and Alexander Portnoy," he wrote. "Neither of them, for instance, wishes to enter his father’s line of work." And on.

Well, it’s hard to second-guess history and editor McGrath would agree with that.

"When the enlightened and liberated editors come along to put together the second centennial volume of the Book Review," he writes, "they will no doubt find many of our choices quaint, not to say incomprehensible. All those late-twentieth-century books on feminism and feminist issues, for example. What was that all about?"

Finally, pity the poor reviewer who gave Sue Grafton’s fabulously successful detective Kinsey Millhone the big brush-off. "She is not a very interesting woman," writes Newgate Callendar. "She is a cliche-ridden character representing the loneliness and alienation of her male counterparts."

The writer, Grafton, is not spared, either. "What is basically wrong with the book ("A is for Alibi") is that the writing lacks real flair. It is no better or no worse than the majority of related books, and that is about all."

Fortunately, this books shows that reviewers are frequently wrong.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

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