1896 | The Book Review Is Born
Times Insider shares historical insights from The New York Times. In this piece, David W. Dunlap, a Metro reporter, looks back at The Times’s inaugural Book Review.
“We are the last daily newspaper in America with a free-standing books section, an essential journal of literary discussion and debate,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, told the organization’s staff in an email on Wednesday announcing that daily and Sunday books coverage would be united under the editorship of Pamela Paul.
As the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., did on Friday, Mr. Baquet assured his colleagues — and, by extension, Times readers — that there were no plans to stop printing the Sunday Book Review.
We can assume Mr. Sulzberger’s great-grandfather, Adolph S. Ochs, would be pleased to know that.
The Saturday Book Review Supplement was one of Mr. Ochs’s first innovations when he took over The Times as publisher. The four-column, tabloid-size insert began its run on Oct. 10, 1896, with Francis Whiting Halsey as the editor.
In 1911, the review was moved to Sundays, on the theory that it would be more appreciatively received by readers with a bit of time on their hands.
“In this publication was carried out an idea of the publisher of The Times that a newspaper book review should be a literary newspaper, treating newly published books as news and containing besides other news of literary happenings,” Elmer Davis wrote in “History of The New York Times, 1851-1921.”
“It found immediate favor with readers, but not with advertisers. Book publishers argued that when the book reviews were embodied in the regular news columns of the paper, as had previously been the custom, they and the adjacent advertising would be seen by the general reader; whereas if they were segregated in a special supplement they would receive the attention only of the limited and presumably impecunious section of the reading public which was interested in books.”
“Only very slowly did the publishers realize that people who were interested in books were more likely to buy books when they had any money to buy them than those who irritably turned over the sheet in order to escape from the book reviews to the sporting news on the next page.”
The inaugural issue had 10 reviews, all unsigned, leading with a so-so assessment of the two-volume “Sir George Tressady,” by Mary Augusta Ward, which sold for $2. “Things without soul and conscience do not generally interest her,” The Times said. “She rarely turns aside to amuse her readers with the bric-à-brac of fiction; even ‘the fable,’ as James calls it, does not occupy very much of her attention.”
Publishers’ fall lists filled much of Page 5. Elsewhere were dozens of tweet-length literary tidbits. Articles included “Oscar Wilde’s Forlorn State,” a description of his demoralizing and dehumanizing imprisonment that had been lifted straight from The Bookman magazine. Aggregation is nothing new.
An essay, “Novelists’ Stock Phrases,” deplored the use of repetitious clichés in place of original ideas. It took the form of an imaginary conversation between two figures called Smith and Little Dobbs.
“Why, when I read the latest novel I feel as if I were at a class reunion of all the imaginary friends of my boyhood,” Smith said. “Every page or so I drop my book and cry: ‘Hello, old fellow! I’m glad to see you’re still able to be about.’ ”
“Modern writers follow the latest wrinkle in architecture. They use a framework of steal.”
Perhaps the most familiar theme to modern readers had to do with the fact that in the autumn of 1896, booksellers around the country faced an existential threat posed by a growing competitive “evil.”
It was called the department store.