On book reviewing in a time of no books

What’s it like to be a book reviewer stuck at home and unable to come into the office? All the books you’re getting are being sent digitally, or arriving in packages at an empty office, and so you’ve lost your connection with the physical book, not to mention your editors and colleagues at the paper. And then there’s the book room. I remember visiting Martin Levin at the Globe, back when it had an actual book review section that I reviewed for, and he let me poke around in the book room. It was like a library of forgotten dreams. All those books, stacked to the rafters, with no one to review them. I wanted to take them home like puppies at a pound. Anyway, the NYT is the gold-standard in American book reviewing, so let’s see what they have to say about the whole thing.

Every time I post this image, I think it’s Carmine

Before the coronavirus, the Book Review would receive hundreds of books and galleys (a printer’s uncorrected proof) in the mail every week. Books were entered into a database and divided between bins and shelves for preview editors, who look over galleys more thoroughly and decide if they warrant a review or some other form of coverage. Specific genres were set aside for columnists, like crime novels for Marilyn Stasio. The rest would head to a big blue dumpster.

Whether the galley was sent from one of the big five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) or a small press, every book passed through the hands of at least one editor for consideration.

This is a point of pride on the desk. “It didn’t matter what publisher the galley came from, how big, how small, whether you’d heard of the author or hadn’t, the book was going to get a fair shake,” said Tina Jordan, the deputy editor of the Book Review.

The Times closed its office to most employees in March. Now, editors work from home and don’t have the cues of the Book Review’s physical layout.

“In the first week that we left the office, 167 packages of books arrived on the desk that no one was there to open or look at,” said Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review.

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