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Review Review

It's Oprah's world and we all just live in it -- except, of course, for the editors of the "Times Book Review," who cling, a bit nostalgically, to their own obsolescence.

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As the book season kicks off, it seems a good time to rephrase the mournful question "Why is it so hard to sell a good book?" and ask, more pointedly, is the problem with books or with The New York Times Book Review?

Other than a handful of Broadway theaters and Wrigley Field, the Book Review is one of the few cultural touchstones to remain almost pristinely intact through most of the century -- indeed, Times Books will in November publish a hundred-year retrospective of the Book Review. Not only does it look pretty much the same as it always has (even with its new four-color pages), it has never really been challenged as the main imprimatur for good books. Arbitrating sensibility and taste, it has consistently been able to sell books and to confer on a serious writer a showbiz-size reputation.

From John Leonard's exuberant rule (1971-75) to Harvey Shapiro's mordant literary reign (1975-1983) to city-room apparatchik Mike Levitas's era of big-name-writer hagiography (1983-1989) to the politically correct era (1989-1995) of Rebecca Sinkler (perhaps most noted for her abrasive management style -- "everybody's bad dream of their homeroom teacher in the sixth grade," in the estimation of one book editor), the Book Review stayed serene in its status as the national literary magazine.

Three and a half years ago, for the first time in modern memory, the TBR went outside for its editor. Chip McGrath, a 23-year veteran of The New Yorker as well as William Shawn's designated successor (McGrath lost that role after The New Yorker was sold to the Newhouse family), was, by wide acclaim, a true "class" hire. It is therefore ironic that he has come to receive much of the blame for the diminishing influence of the Book Review -- in this era of Oprah and Amazon.com -- and for hastening the demise of good books in the marketplace. The invective directed at McGrath from the book community can probably best be explained on the basis of economic self-interest.

"The Book Review just doesn't sell books anymore," says David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster's trade division.

I had not been up to the TBR's offices on the eighth floor of the Times building since John Leonard's reign. Then the offices were among the more commodious at the highly linoleumed Times -- an open, airy space with (notable for the Times) some potted plants.

This same space, I thought as I arrived to chat with McGrath last week, had quite possibly not been cleaned since I was last here. In the course of a generation, it had turned from a literary oasis into something like a welfare office -- a dark, claustrophobic, quite possibly unhygienic warren. The message seems very clear: While the rest of the media has become slick and packaged and formulaic, the TBR is staying loyal to the squalor and eccentricities of the human condition.

McGrath's gentle demeanor -- he has an exposed, boyish, hopeful face -- managed to turn me from the avenue of my intended line of questioning, namely, "What's happened here? Hello? You're not even trying."

Instead, I asked, "Who do you think your reader is?"

McGrath folded his hands and cocked his head. "It's a serious, literate general reader," he surmised. "He's me. He's the people who work here."


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