Former New York Times Book Review editor to speak in Essex
Remember the junior high school book report? Often the project started with figuring out the minimum pages to read before you could write a reasonable paper. And, of course, skipping to the last page so you would know how the story turned out. (If you are a certain age, the drill might actually have begun by looking for a Classic Comic with an illustrated version of the plot so you didn’t have to read the book at all.)
Sam Tanenhaus never outgrew those book reports. Instead, he got much better at them. So good, in fact, that he became editor of the New York Times Book Review for nine years, from 2004 to 2013. Still, he does not like the word “reviewer.”
“A reviewer is just thumbs up, thumbs down,” he says. He prefers the word “critic,” explaining that a critic doesn’t just rate a book, but discusses it.
Tanenhaus, who moved to Essex last May, will talk about the art of putting the New York Times Book Review together at the Essex Library on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Readers, he notes, scrutinize the review in the same minute detail that experts once employed to examine the actions of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“It gets to be like Kremlinology,” he says.
Tanenhaus will demystify his subject by explaining, among other things, which books get reviewed, who gets to review them and how the oft-cited bestseller lists are put together.
During Tanenhaus’ tenure as editor, the book review first published letters from authors who disagreed with the assessments of their books. Prior to his tenure, the book review had published only letters correcting factual errors. Tanenhaus recalled a letter from an economist whose book had been negatively reviewed. As editor, he decided, despite then-existing policy, to publish the disgruntled author’s letter.
“We had done him ill by a bad review and we would have done him ill a second time by not publishing the letter,” he says.
Tanenhaus has experienced both sides of the author-critic equation, His first book, a winner of the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography and a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, was a biography of Whittaker Chambers, the controversial writer and editor who was a member of the Communist party from 1925 to 1938, and subsequently became a committed anti-Communist. Chambers was a key witness against Alger Hiss, the state department official accused in 1948 of being a Soviet spy. Hiss ultimately was convicted of perjury in a widely publicized 1950 trial.
“It was the Hiss case that first interested me,” Tanenhaus says, “but I thought Chambers was the real story.”
It was in writing the book about Chambers that Tanenhaus first met the late William F. Buckley, the conservative author and journalist who founded the National Review. Tanenhaus is now working on a biography of Buckley, a man he describes as a charismatic, larger-than-life figure.
“He radiated,” Tanenhaus notes.
The biography, the author admits, was due “at least a president ago.” When Tanenhaus visited Buckley 10 days before he died in 2008, Buckley noted the book was still unfinished.
“He said to me ‘I guess I’ll never read that biography,’” Tanenhaus recalls.
From 2007 to 2010, at the same time he edited the book review, Tanenhaus also edited another popular Sunday section of the Times, the News of the Week in Review. (Since that time, the name has been changed to the Sunday Review.) During that period, he appeared every Friday on “Morning Joe,” the current affairs television program that features Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
When he finished college at Grinnell in Iowa, Tanenhaus earned a master’s degree in English Literature at Yale, but along with literature, he discovered something about himself.
“After six weeks I knew graduate school was not for me. I wanted to be a writer,” he says. “I was interested in criticism, in writers like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. In retrospect, I can see what I wanted to be was a journalist.”
Still, he did not get a full-time job in journalism as an assistant editor at the New York Times until 1997 at the age of 42. He had used grants and a small book advance to stay afloat while writing the Chambers biography. He left the Times in 1999 to work as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair before returning to the paper in 2004.
In 2013 Tanenhaus stepped down from editing the book review and became a writer-at-large for the newspaper; among his contributions was an in-depth piece on current Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul. In 2014, he retired from the Times but not from journalism. In addition to the Buckley biography, he is writing regularly for two websites, Bloomberg View and Bloomberg Politics as well as writing a column for Prospect, a British current affairs magazine.
Tanenhaus and his wife Kathy Bonomi, a film curator at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, lived in Westchester County for some 30 years. The combination of snow and Cape Cod brought them to Essex. Driving back from the Cape last winter, a heavy snowstorm forced them to stop at the Griswold Inn for dinner. They liked the area and started exploring; exploring ultimately led to buying.
Recently, Tanenhaus showed a visitor the view from his study, a wooded landscape with no other houses visible.
“Just look at this,” he said, sweeping his hand wide to illustrate the vista.
When he is not working in the office, he and Kathy are discovering the area, with visits to everything from Rocky Neck to a favorite local coffee shop. After many years living near the Hudson, they now say they are happy to explore the Connecticut River. “Kathy says we should get a kayak. She’s probably right,” Tanenhaus said.
Whatever they do, they can now do it on their own schedule. “It’s shocking to say, but I’m retired, though Kathy hates to hear that,” Tanenhaus said. “We can go back to the way we once lived, as freelancers.”
IF YOU GO
What: Free lecture: “Inside the New York Times Book Review” with former book review editor Sam Tanenhaus
When: Oct. 27 at 7 pm
Where: Essex Library, 33 West Ave., Essex
What else: Reservations suggested. Call the library at (860) 767-1560.
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