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Book World Days in ReviewBy Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 1, 1997
Twenty-five years ago almost to the day, I had a telephone call at my office in North Carolina from a person who introduced himself as William McPherson and told me what I already knew: Book World had become the sole property of The Washington Post. He was its editor. I knew this as well, for my friend and colleague across the hall, Ed Yoder, had been publishing occasional reviews in the original Book World for some time, and I was well-versed in its news.
The invitation that McPherson issued, to review a first novel called Stay Hungry by a young Southern writer named Charles Gaines, could hardly have been more welcome. My career as book reviewer was in its early stages, and the chance to write for the new book section of The Post was clearly a step forward.
Looking back on that conversation from the vantage point of 1997, I see the intervening years as a blur of books read and reviews written. For six years, beginning in the summer of 1972, I contributed about 85 reviews to Book World, first from my desk as book editor of the Greensboro Daily News, then as book editor of the Miami Herald. This singularly happy association lasted until late autumn of 1978, when I took over the book editorship of the Washington Star, where I stayed until its demise in the summer of 1981.
Along with a couple of dozen others, I came to The Post when the Star folded. Perhaps because I felt slightly lost in a crowd of newcomers, perhaps because I was more than 40 years old and long past my apprenticeship, perhaps because I had missed The Post's self-defining glory days of Watergate, I for many years felt rather an outsider here. It is time for that to stop. I did a bit of arithmetic the other day and came up with a numbing statistic: Between 1972 and 1997, I published something on the order of 1,600 book reviews in The Post's daily and Sunday editions.
Sixteen hundred book reviews! Lay them all end to end and they would stretch from here to Tedium. Think of all the writing-school writers who have been bashed, some of them over and over again; all the biographers who have been taken to task for prolixity and amateur psychoanalysis; all the newsfolk whose journalese has been dismissed with scorn; all the memoirists whose ventures into publicly self-administered psychotherapy have been mocked; all the writers of this and that and the other who have been taken to the woodshed and made to suffer their just deserts.
It's been a long haul, certainly long enough for me to quit pretending that I'm a rookie. From July 30, 1972, when that review of Stay Hungry appeared, through today, I have achieved the Lou Gehrigesque distinction of publishing more reviews in this section than anyone else.
Book World to me is people. Its staff has always been small, and there has been surprisingly infrequent turnover through the years, but enough people have worked here during my quarter-century to fill a substantial reunion hall. So far in 25 years we have had only one permanent loss, that coming with the premature, heartbreaking 1992 death of Reid Beddow.
It is inappropriate for obvious reasons for me to write about editors now on the staff, for all of whom I have admiration and affection. But there are three former staff members whose contributions to the development of Book World were essential, and they should be given more than passing acknowledgment.
The first of these is Bill McPherson. It has been many years since he left Book World's editorship to become, first, The Post's chief book reviewer, then to begin a new life as the author of exemplary novels, but his influence is lasting. Book World as it exists today is largely what he made it in 1972. Bill favored wit and irreverence in book reviewing over orotund pronunciamentos, and he had a genius for imaginative combinations of reviewers and books, matches that seemed improbable but set off sparks once struck; I still think that Jean Stafford's review of James Michener's Centennial, published in 1974, was both the most devastating and the funniest book review I have ever read.
Bill McPherson was and remains a literary person, but he knew that a section such as this is part of a daily newspaper rather than a literary quarterly, and he edited it accordingly. Books likely to appeal to a mass readership, books of wide interest to the particular and somewhat peculiar Washington readership, were given careful attention in his day, as they are now. Though these reviews could be withering, a la Jean Stafford, they took popular books and those who read them seriously. Blessed himself with an uncommonly wicked sense of humor, Bill thought book reviews and book coverage should be amusing; but he also understood that this section must be many things to many people.
In the last years of Bill's regime, the person at his right hand was Brigitte Weeks. She came to The Post from book publishing rather than journalism, but her acculturation was quick and solid. By the time her own tenure in the editor's office began, in 1978, Brigitte had absorbed Book World's style as Bill had defined it and was ready to add her own elements to the mix. These included a wit both quiet and wry and a deep love for old-fashioned triple-decker novels, preferably by writers from her own native Great Britain.
The beginning of Brigitte's editorship coincided with my editorship of the Star's far smaller and less interesting book section. We were competitors, but friends as well, and established a routine of lunches and other meetings that served both of us well when the death of the Star deposited me at her front door. Because we liked each other, and because Brigitte went out of her way to make me feel welcome, a transition that could have been difficult was not merely easy but pleasant. I was sick of editing and wanted only to write, while Brigitte edited with a confident hand and administered Book World's daily affairs with a fine sense of the feelings of others.
In these matters Brigitte, like Bill, had the help of Ednamae Storti, Book World's editorial assistant. Ednamae worked for Book World for 23 years, retiring in January of this year. Virtually all of the section's business passed across Ednamae's desk. She was known, by voice if not in person, by almost everyone in the publicity ends of trade publishing, and by writers all around the world. She knew who was who and what was what, ferried back and forth among all of them with consummate efficiency, and was not merely Book World's institutional memory but also an invaluable source of information.
No anniversary of Book World should be permitted to pass without mention of one of the most important conditions of its existence: the support it enjoys from the owners and ranking editors of this newspaper. To say this may seem mere apple-polishing, but it is plain statement of fact. Few readers are likely to know that Book World does not make money for The Post; it never has and surely never will. It is published because the powers that be at this newspaper believe that serious book coverage is an essential ingredient of a serious newspaper.
My own bias toward Book World is pronounced and unembarrassed. I longed to become a permanent member of its staff for what seemed ages, and in the 16 years since that aspiration was fulfilled I have lost little of my surprise and none of my gratitude over my good fortune. Not merely do I get to work with people I like for a newspaper I respect, but I a.m. read by people with sufficient independence of mind to give me no more heed than I deserve.
The pattern was set with that first review, published in 1972. Charles Gaines's novel was, I said, an "impressive achievement," but this must not have made much of a dent on those who read my words, because the book soon enough vanished with only a barely discernible trace. My fourth review for Book World, by contrast, was a decidedly unfavorable notice of another first novel, this by Dan Jenkins. The review was damning enough so that a friend who attended a party in Jenkins's honor heard him say -- in jest, I guess, since we eventually became friendly if slight acquaintances -- "I've got a hit out for some guy named Jonathan Yardley." The book, as by now you probably do not need to be told, was called Semi-Tough. It shot right onto the bestseller lists and stayed there for months. No thanks to me, you say? That's what I said too, for years. But after writing similarly damning reviews of other books -- Scarlett, by Alexandra Ripley, comes all too vividly to mind -- and watching them subsequently enjoy similar successes, I have concluded that these negative reviews could well be called the Yardley Kiss of Life.
So -- to quote a writer who's come in for his share of bashing hereabouts -- it goes. Though the world quite certainly would be a better place if people would only do what I tell them, it appears that they are perversely determined to do exactly as they please. Truth to tell, if it were otherwise this would be a dull job and I an even duller boy than I already am. So on this day of Book World's anniversary, after toasting those who made it what it is and those who keep it that way, I aim to fill my glass with a tasty red and raise it high to you, ungentle reader, without whom Book World would be utterly unnecessary.
Jonathan Yardley is The Post's book critic. His Internet address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company