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How The New York Times Book Review Evolved Over 125 Years

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Since The Times began publishing in 1851, book news has been a central component of its report. And no wonder. Francis Brown, the editor of the Book Review from 1949 to 1971, wrote of that early era, “It was the period of Trollope and Dickens and Thackeray, of Whitman, Longfellow, Tennyson and Baudelaire, of Darwin and Huxley, of the Russians Turgenev, Dostoevski and Tolstoy, the Americans Mark Twain, Howells, Henry James.” Word of these great writers spilled throughout the paper, in reviews, features, letters and more.

So it was perhaps no surprise when Adolph S. Ochs chose to gather this coverage into a dedicated book section, establishing the stand-alone supplement shortly after becoming publisher of the paper in 1896. The first edition, then called the Saturday Book Review Supplement, featured 10 unsigned reviews along with lists of new books and an assemblage of literary news, including word of Oscar Wilde’s travails in prison.

In its early days, the Book Review treated books strictly as a form of news. “Literary criticism, an excellent thing in its way, but, properly speaking, a means rather than an end, has never been the chief object of its existence,” the Book Review stated in 1913. “An open forum for the discussion of books from all sane and honest points of view is always accessible in The New York Times Book Review.”

This ethos guided the Book Review through many changes in its early years. In 1911, it was moved to Sundays, in the hopes of attracting more attentive readers. For a two-year period beginning in 1920, the Book Review was wedded to the Sunday Magazine. Shortly thereafter, the use of bylines became standard practice, and Book Review editors began to recruit more outside contributors for their expertise. A world war had come and gone, the Book Review had changed and changed again, but “books as news” remained its guiding philosophy.

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