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Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History

From the longest-running, most influential book review in America, here is its best, funniest, strangest, and most memorable coverage over the past 125 years.

Since its first issue on October 10, 1896, The New York Times Book Review has brought the world of ideas to the reading public. It is the publication where authors have been made, and where readers first encountered the classics that have enriched their lives.

Now the editors have curated the Book Review’s dynamic 125-year history, which is essentially the story of modern American letters. Brimming with remarkable reportage and photography, this beautiful book collects interesting reviews, never-before-heard anecdotes about famous writers, and spicy letter exchanges. Here are the first takes on novels we now consider masterpieces, including a long-forgotten pan of Anne of Green Gables and a rave of Mrs. Dalloway, along with reviews and essays by Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Nora Ephron, and more.

With scores of stunning vintage photographs, many of them sourced from the Times’s own archive, readers will discover how literary tastes have shifted through the years—and how the Book Review’s coverage has shaped so much of what we read today.


Hardcover: 368 pages Publisher: Clarkson Potter Dimensions: 10" x 18"

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An inside look at the scandals and successes of the New York Times

Adam nagourney’s new history of the gray lady recounts the paper’s dramatic history from 1977 to 2016.

“Will the New York Times make it?” That was the topic of the town-hall meeting that the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller, held for his anxious staff in the late 2000s. He walked onstage to the song “Not Dead Yet” from the musical “Spamalot.”

Today, when the New York Times has nearly 10 million paying subscribers and posts annual profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it is easy to forget how bleak its future looked 15 years ago. But as Adam Nagourney recounts in his masterful new history, “The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism,” its yo-yoing economic fortunes are typical of the turbulence that has dogged the paper for the past four decades as it has struggled to preserve its position as the country’s — arguably the world’s — preeminent news outlet.

The turmoil chronicled in the first half of Nagourney’s book, which covers the years from 1977 to 2001, played out largely behind the scenes. Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal, who had been running the newsroom since 1969, was brilliant but abusive. As Nagourney recounts, Rosenthal’s tirades — often fueled by alcohol — against subordinates who failed to meet his exacting standards were “abjectly humiliating,” one editor said. Rosenthal and publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger Sr. earned journalistic triumphs and financial success for the Times, but they also shared deeply homophobic and sexist attitudes. Gay journalists, who Rosenthal and Sulzberger agreed were a “subversive force” in the newsroom, stayed in the closet or risked having their careers derailed. One pregnant journalist — Anna Quindlen, a rising star at the paper — was asked by her boss, “So this is the last one, right?”

According to Nagourney, the newsroom became a happier place under Rosenthal’s successors, Max Frankel and Joe Lelyveld, but they, too, made serious missteps: under Frankel, publishing a story that named, and smeared, the woman accusing William Kennedy Smith of rape; under Lelyveld, leading the rush to judgment against the Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was wrongly accused of espionage. And although both editors said they wanted to diversify the Times’s overwhelmingly White newsroom, both failed to achieve that goal. Their “entrenched notions of what made a person qualified for a job,” Nagourney writes, made them unwilling “to take chances on less experienced minority candidates, who had not enjoyed the same opportunities for advancement growing up, or attended the same Ivy League colleges, as their white counterparts.”

In the second half of the book, which takes us from 2001 to 2016, the Times’s troubles burst into the open. First came the revelation that the reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated or plagiarized dozens of stories, then the realization that the Times, led by reporter Judith Miller, had helped launder fictions about Iraq’s weapons programs in the run-up to war. After these blows to the paper’s reputation came a devastating hit to its business. When the 2008 recession struck, advertising revenue cratered, as did the company’s stock price.

Salvation came with the Times’s decision to start charging its readers for online subscriptions via a metered paywall: Visitors to the paper’s website could read their first few articles free, but they would need to subscribe to unlock any additional content. Previously, the Times had bungled its efforts to adapt to the internet. A janky collaboration with America Online in 1994 was quickly scrapped, and an experiment called TimesSelect, which put only the paper’s opinion columnists behind a paywall, bombed in the mid-2000s. But this time it worked, and nearly every other major print publication, including The Washington Post, has since taken a similar approach.

Although aspects of this story will be familiar to some, Nagourney makes it irresistibly compelling by focusing on the people behind it — their motivations, their vulnerabilities, their quirks, and above all the epic power struggles among them. He is sympathetic toward the often-maligned Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who took over as publisher from his father in 1992, but the book’s most memorable scenes involving Sulzberger Jr. have him cracking lame jokes in a failed attempt to establish rapport with his employees (“At the end of the day I couldn’t disguise the fact that I thought he was a moron,” one editor told Nagourney). He details the rise of Jill Abramson, the paper’s first female executive editor, who endured so much on her way to the top, including fighting a previous editor’s efforts to sideline her, and being nearly killed when a truck ran her over — only to be fired after 16 months in the job.

A Times reporter since 1996, Nagourney has lived much of this history. He interviewed almost every central figure and recorded seemingly every detail, from the square footage of the satellite office where the web staff worked in the 1990s to the dish (Arctic char) that Bill Keller ordered for dinner when interviewing for the position of executive editor.

This focus on the granular details of all things Times-related gives short shrift to anything happening outside the confines of New York Times Company offices (or, occasionally, the high-end restaurants and homes at fashionable addresses where New York Times eminences may be found). The paper’s readers, the city for which it is named and the rest of the press are largely abstractions. Those who gripe that the New York Times is haughty and solipsistic will find plenty here to feed their annoyance.

Anyone writing a history of the New York Times labors in the shadow of Gay Talese’s 1969 masterpiece “The Kingdom and the Power” (ask any American journalist whose career started in the late 20th century what got them interested in the field, and odds are they’ll mention either Talese’s book or “All the President’s Men,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of their remarkable success chasing the story of Watergate) . Nagourney cites it as his inspiration, and, like Talese, he tries to hook readers who aren’t news junkies by creating a propulsive, character-driven narrative that revolves around the consequential decisions that journalists and executives at the New York Times must make — on matters as diverse as using the courtesy title “Ms.” (banned until 1986) and accepting the insistence of the George W. Bush administration that they suppress a story on the National Security Agency’s secret domestic surveillance program.

Although Nagourney cannot match Talese as a prose stylist (few people can), “The Times” is much more reader-friendly than “The Kingdom and the Power.” For starters, it has chapter titles and a chronological structure, plus copious source notes telling where the author picked up all those acerbic quotes and revealing nuggets. But, above all, Nagourney’s narrative benefits from the sheer drama of events: the nation’s most august journalistic institution, brought low first by its own blunders and then by economic circumstance, only to come back stronger than ever. It gives new meaning to the old saying, both blessing and curse: may you live in interesting Times.

Matthew Pressman is an associate professor of journalism at Seton Hall University and has written extensively about the history of the New York Times. His next book will be a history of the New York Daily News.

How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism

By Adam Nagourney

Crown. 592 pp. $35

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