Newspaper reviews

One thing about any of James McPherson's reviews for the New York Review of Books has been his spending at least two-thirds of a piece relating those events covered by the book itself. Every one of his reviews becomes a little history survey.

The experienced reader or even the literate generalist can get very frustrated very fast under this treatment.

But there can be worse. Make the whole review a recap of events, just a recap, as with this New York Times piece by Thomas Ricks, for instance, and it will tell nil about the book reviewed.

Who was this man Sherman? Why was he famous? What is this "Civil War" of which you speak? Well, thanks to this "book review" I now know! Have heard the name but was never sure when he lived or why he mattered.

And so you wonder who the hell reads the New York Times. Back in 1959, Harper's had an answer:
There come to mind all those high-school English teachers, those faithful librarians and booksellers, those trusting suburbanites, those bright young men and women in the provinces, all those who believe in the judgment of the Times and who need its direction.
So little change since then! Likewise,
The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday “Book Pages.”
In the period in which this complaint was being registered, there were still some good reviews being written for a general audience. Here's a snippet from a New York Review of Books piece, April, 1964: it addresses three books about the conquest of Mexico.

It does not bother to explain where Mexico is located, nor does it enumerate the conquerors, nor does it provide historical dating, nor does it relate those past events to events of today and burnish their importance. The reader is expected to be at home in foundational Mexican history.

The review begins with a single paragraph of literature survey then plunges into a brief historiographic essay preliminary to analyzing the individual books. This is a book review for adults.

If Civil War book reviews continue on their trajectory, and as they get shorter, they will soon read like TV program listings.