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A Moment of ‘Balance’ at the NY Times Book Review

February 10, 2008,

The Clearing over Sam’s Book Club

By Jim Sleeper

“This week’s issue of the New York Times Book Review ranges over American politics but not, we hope, in a familiar way,” its editors write Upfront. They mean not only that their special February 10 issue, “Politics, Real and Imagined,” is devoted almost exclusively to politics, but also that it ranges across genres, from books about the politics of race, gender, and religion to memoirs and even fiction.

But something besides all that, too, is “not familiar” about this issue, I realized on Friday, when I received a message telling me to “Take a bow.” It came from a reader of my excoriations of the Times Book Review last fall in The Nation Hawking War Guilt | The Nation and The Guardian. Coming home to roost | Jim Sleeper | The Guardian

“There are sixteen reviews here,” my tipster wrote on Friday, “but not a one” by Peter Beinart, Paul Berman, David Brooks, Richard Brookhiser, Christopher Hitchens, Joe Klein, Leon Wieseltier, or the other pumped-up assailants of liberals whom I’d accused of turning the Sunday book section into a “neoconservative damage-control gazette” under editor Sam Tanenhaus. (Mediabistro’s Galley Cat called the section a “shadow op ed page.”

So, what gives?

I won’t reprise my critique of the Book Review here; if you’d like the “what” of it — the Book Review’s record as I’ve characterized it — read the Nation essay linked above. If you’d like the “why,” in an exegesis of Tanenhaus’ political odyssey, read (please do read!) The Guardian account. Coming home to roost | Jim Sleeper | The Guardian

This week’s “new” Book Review has some leftish reviews we’ve not seen before under Tanenhaus, if ever — Maurice Isserman and Jill Nelson on books about racial politics, for example. We also see Elsa Dixler, who actually works at the review but had been confined mostly to surveying paperbacks and fiction, reviewing, knowingly, two memoirs by the 1960s activists Carl Oglesby and Susan Sherman.

The few leftish reviewers Tanenhaus has actually published on a semi-regular basis — David Greenberg, Adam Hochschild, Tara McKelvey –are all trundled out this time, too. And Alan Ehrenhalt, a judicious conservative writer and editor who hasn’t been seen here in years, puts the neo-con apostle David Frum in his place — despite the solicitous regard for Frum which Tanenhaus showed while giving a lecture at the conservative American Enterprise Institute which I described here in December. Coming home to roost | Jim Sleeper | The Guardian

This makes the absence of Berman, Brooks, Hitchens, et al from the special Times Book Review edition on “Politics, Real and Imagined” quite striking. They’ll be back, no doubt,  but more sparingly, and properly so.

The Times should publish thoughtful conservative writers to keep liberals and leftists honest. To be honest myself here, some of this week’s reviews could use more a bit more of the bite and panache the war hawks sometimes gave us. But most of the reviews are the richer and more rewarding to read for being less sardonic and melodramatic.

Judge for yourself. I’ll add only that the scrutiny the Book Review has received seems to have struck home. Tanenhaus, who I suggested here last fall was having second thoughts about how he’d borne himself politically and had skewed his reviewing assignments, undertook a charm offensive this winter on the occasion of his elevation to the editorship of the Week in Review even as he continues to oversee Books, with hands-on help from others who may have effected some of this marked shift in depth and tone.

The challenge for a general-interest Book Review such as the Times’ isn’t to swing “left,” as it did almost laughably under editor Rebecca Sinkler in the mid-1990s, but to revivify an American civic-republican literary and political spirit that isn’t a muddle between left and right. I hinted at this in The Guardian essay, Coming home to roost | Jim Sleeper | The Guardian  and there is more to come.

(Footnote: It did come, years later, in my review The Inevitability of Defending Henry Kissinger | The New Republic of a book by deputy editor Barry Gewen, in which I criticized not only his book but his influence at the Book Review.)