Book World 25th Anniversary

Historic highlights from Book World reviews of the:
1970s | 1980s | 1990s

Hardcover Bestsellers, 1972-1996

The Book World staff picks its favorites of the last quarter-century.

Editor Nina King ponders the vagaries of becoming a bestseller.

Jonathan Yardley, Carolyn See and Kunio Francis Tanabe write of their personal experiences as critics.

Marie Arana-Ward explores the relationship between publisher and critic.

Jabari Asim celebrates a flourishing of African American literature.

Michael Dirda comments on the state of fiction.

David Nicholson speculates on the future of books in a technological age.

Go to Chapter One

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Book World 25th Anniversary

By Kunio Francis Tanabe
Sunday, June 1, 1997

The road is paved with books -- thousands of them -- winding back over 25 years.

There's a Bellow here, a Kundera there, a fluffy romance, a book of existential angst, a comedy, a tragedy -- books to suit every whim and fancy.

While still a graduate student working on a thesis titled "The Ethical Concepts of Karl Marx," I was hired by William McPherson, then the book editor of The Washington Post, to become his part-time assistant. Little did I know then that I would continue working for the book section for more than a quarter century. . .

I started what would become my career as a sweet-toothed news aide in a candy store, except that the lollipops were books. It was as if the good witch in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz had deposited me in fairyland.

She waved her magic wand in 1972 and, poof!, the book review operation in New York ceased to exist, opening up a position for me in Washington. (The Sunday book section had been a joint production of the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post after the New York Herald Tribune folded.) Of course, I knew that the powers that be had made it all possible. Thank you Glinda, I mean Mrs. Graham!

And what a team we had. Bill McPherson was at the helm; Eve Auchincloss was associate editor. Joseph McLellan, who later became The Post's music critic, was our renaissance man. We had editors Carol and Carole -- Eron and Horn (Carol from the Boston Phoenix moved on to the National Gallery of Art and Carole later became a physician). Ellie Hamm, who zipped to work in a spiffy sports car and dashed off to ride her horse in Warrenton, was editorial assistant. I was this innocent abroad from Yokohama who finally finished the thesis "proving" after all that passion precedes, even dictates, intellect and Marx was no exception to this. We were all so young then, so full of intellectual passion, seeking answers to individual quests.

In 1972, when the newly reincarnated Book World began, the world around us was stranger than the strangest happenings in Oz. George Wallace, the Alabama governor who defied federal authorities by refusing to allow blacks to enter public schools, was a serious candidate for president. He was about to win the primary in Maryland when he was shot while campaigning there.

On June 17, a couple of weeks after our first issue appeared, burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate Office Building. Soon one mind-boggling revelation followed another.

Back then Carl Bernstein was dating Book World's Ellie. He would come up to our office on the ninth floor to see her and we would all ask, "What the hell is going on?"

A true book lover, the late Howard Simons was the managing editor of the newspaper. He, too, would come up to look through stacks of new books and in the process reveal some of what was happening. "What a world! What a world!" we might all have exclaimed, aghast at treachery's tentacles reaching down from the top.

The war in Vietnam was still raging and worsening when, in November, Sen. George McGovern lost to President Nixon in a landslide, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. How our spirits fell. To this day, that war and Nixon's victory form deep fault lines even within our small book section. With newer staffers who hated McGovern and the youth movement of the '60s and '70s, it was sometimes not easy finding common ground. But I've mellowed, lost too much of that youthful sense of indignation. As Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger would say skeptically , "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner."

Having followed the yellowing book road all the way to the beginning of Book World you'd think I would have discovered enough treasure-troves of wisdom. I'm sure there are gems and lodes of all kinds of knowledge, but I confess I've unearthed only a tiny fraction. Maybe that's because the object of my quest keeps changing. Sometimes I've been the Scarecrow yearning for books that would make me smarter, occasionally the Cowardly Lion hoping to roar with confidence, or the tin man, wanting a heart of unfathomably deep love. And, of course, I was always Dorothy- -- trying to get back home to Yokohama but instead finding a home in the good ol' US of A.

Over the years I've written occasional reviews but I've always had this gnawing feeling that reviews were just flickering shadows on a cave wall, or worse, something like the great and powerful Oz's elaborate contraption for producing fumes and smoke and fire. A review can only focus on such a small aspect of a book.

Sadly, I've come to realize that most of those enticing books I've lugged home and resolved to read will just remain there gathering dust, that it is logistically impossible to read them all before the Great Wiz from above calls upon me. I've begun to wonder, "Are all the words on those pages really so important?"

Many years ago I was in Savile's, my favorite bookshop in Georgetown, now gone, looking at children's books. (Was it for my first child, or was it for someone else's? I don't remember.) I asked the store attendant, Mark Blume, if he would recommend one for me. Instead he turned and said, "Don't find it in a book. Let the kid run around, sniff the flowers and the grass," or words to that effect. I knew what he meant.

Mark died soon after, in a boating accident on the Potomac. He was a young man still in his twenties. The boat was a birthday present from his girlfriend.

Where is the moral to that story? Real life is never neat and tidy. But what I should have told Mark is this: Reading to a child, or to oneself, can be an act of love. Just like the gift of that boat.

We want a happy ending, we want Dorothy tapping the heels of her ruby slippers and finding herself back home in Kansas. Even if we don't make it home, it's all right if we find love along the way. But there is no telling what will result from the reading of a book.

So here I a.m. in 1997, still following the yellow book road, plucking thoughts and fancies along the way, helping shape Book World each week with words and pictures.

Yes, Mark, instead of gazing at the computer screen all day long, I'd rather go to my daughter's softball game and enjoy the sunshine, the fragrance of freshly cut grass, the faint scent of the flowers in the outfield. But I'll take a book along just in case.

Kunio Francis Tanabe is art director and assistant editor of Book World. His e-mail address is

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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