I was delighted to see the return of the Letters page in today's Book World. Does this mean that it is really back? Will there be a full page of letters in every issue? When Book World moved to the new format in January 1999, we were told that nothing from the old had been left out. But that's not true: There is no weekly Letters page, just an occasional one, plus the insipid readers' favorites. You need a letters page to keep reviewers honest. The Oct. 31 letter from Gregory Paul was an excellent example of what I miss. His critique of Jonathan Yardley's review of Rupert Sheldrake's Dogs Who Know Their Owners Are Coming Home was right on target. I'm sure that you have received similar letters about the credulous review by Claire Douglas of Tom Shroder's Old Souls (about reincarnation, Book World, Oct. 17). The review was unworthy of you, and you need your readers to tell you so, and in a public forum. So, please bring back the letters page as a weekly feature, for all our sakes.
The Editor responds:
The old format of Book World did not have a weekly Letters page, but my hope is that in future you will see "Letters to the Editor" in every issue. Please keep your letters coming. We think they make for lively reading.
The Big Test
Gerald W. Bracey's review of Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test (Book World, Oct. 17) has a disturbing theme throughout. Bracey attacks Lemann's latest book for overstating the effect of the almighty SAT on the lives of millions of Americans over the past half century. Yet it is Bracey who overstates. While contending that Lemann's thesis does not hold up to "the facts" (which Bracey never clearly defines), Bracey offers the caveat that "popular culture certainly believes the power" of the SAT to determine the future for many Americans. This is precisely Lemann's point! Unless one believes that popular culture counts for nothing (which Bracey apparently does), the reality is that most Americans equate high SAT scores with intelligence, academic success and a bright future; low SAT scores mean stupidity, failure and a poor future.
Which leads me to the biggest problem with Bracey's review: He refuses to ask whether the SAT is even worth using as a measure of current academic performance and future academic success. Actually, he does answer this question, if only indirectly, by admitting that schools such as Brown and Vassar do not use the SAT as the ultimate measure for college. For Bracey (an obvious believer in standardized tests), it only matters that their admissions policies are not solely based on the SAT, not why they are considering other factors. Bracey's point that there is at best a low correlation between SAT scores and freshman-year college grades actually strengthens Lemann's argument, which is that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has been selling a bill of goods to American high schools and higher education. The exam is not a good academic tool, and can only predict the socioeconomic background of the students taking the test.
DONALD E. COLLINS
Gerald Bracey responds:
As someone who has consistently criticized standardized tests, led some early efforts in the development of alternatives and, almost 20 years ago, called for the abolition of the SAT (Phi Delta Kappan, Dec. 1980), I find Collins's characterization of me as "an obvious believer" most curious. It will certainly come as news to people at ETS and the College Board. Far from merely documenting the public's misguided belief in the life-determining power of the SAT, The Big Test gives us a Lemann who believes the SAT does have the very power the public believes it wields. Consider the book's last sentences: The founders of the American meritocracy "did, however, believe they were destroying a nascent class system and building a fluid, mobile society. Fifty years later, their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace." These sentences confirm that Lemann has accepted the popular culture's beliefs about the SAT as true. Among the facts that Collins overlooks in my review is that at one of our most selective colleges, the number of applicants scoring between 750 and 800 on the SAT verbal would have filled two freshman classes. Yet, only about one third of these were accepted and the scores of students admitted ranged from 350 to 800, an extraordinary range of talent. I also pointed out that the selective colleges that have abandoned the SAT do not miss it. ETS is selling a bill of goods with the SAT, but deans of admissions know it. A friend who often speaks to meetings of admissions officers tells me he always asks for a show of hands: Who would continue to use the SAT if the college, not the student, had to pay for it? He says he has yet to see a single arm in the air.
Crimes Against Crime
Oh, poor Patricia Cornwell (Book World, Letters, Dec. 19). Imagine being called a mystery writer and having your books reviewed under a mystery column. Perhaps she should take a look at what two renowned mystery authors, Agatha Christie and Carolyn Hart, have said in response to the question: "Why do you want to write about murder?" Hart says: I always know immediately that I am not talking to a mystery reader because murder is never the point of a mystery. Agatha Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. It is a brilliant analogy. In the medieval play the audiences saw a graphic presentation of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth and all the other deadly sins. I belong to the category of "mystery writers." Of course, unlike Cornwell we didn't work in the medical examiner's office as data entry clerks nor do we feel we trivialize the day-to-day crimes. What we do do is write mystery stories.
ELAINE RACO CHASE
Who's Sorry Now
I'm still in shock from the letter I received yesterday from The Post (Nov. 8, from Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., president and general manager) saying that Book World subscriptions [as separate from the rest of the paper] are being discontinued effective Dec. 19. I've been a subscriber for about 12 years and have become addicted to my weekly fix of your reviews and columns. I'm going to miss Yardley, Dirda, et al. Oh I know, I can get it on the Internet, but it ain't the same! I can't read the Internet in bed, bath or bus. PAUL GARDNER, Toronto
I was surprised and deeply disappointed to receive your letter to Book World subscribers, telling us that The Washington Post would soon discontinue mailing Book World separately from the newspaper.
As I'm sure you know, Book World is a unique publication, truly without peer in its field. I should think The Post would value the recognition it receives throughout the United States and the rest of the world by sending Book World to a select group of people. It is an excellent advertisement for The Post in thousands of places where the newspaper is not available.
DAVID M. SHILLING, Arlington
The Editor responds:
We've received countless letters lamenting the decision to cease our separate subscription service to 2,800 Book World readers around the globe. Book World continues to be available to (more than 1.2 million) Sunday Washington Post subscribers and to online readers at www.washingtonpost.com. (Look for us under Style/Books.) We regret to disappoint these loyal subscribers, many of them overseas, and hope that they will persist in reading us in a different format.
(Send letters to Book World Editor, Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or to firstname.lastname@example.org).