Monday, June 12, 2006

As Special Issues Proliferate, A Warning From A NYT Reader

The New York Times Book Review is usually a joy to read, and Sunday's issue was excellent, with a review of a book about a former British diplomat walking across Afghanistan in the lead, a good review of a biography of author Harper Lee, a review by Joe Klein of the new book by Peter Beinart and an essay on Western authors writing about terrorism.

But the NYT Book Review this week also contained a letter from a reader, Henry Halsted of Racine, Wis., that expressed the reader's dislike of the special issues that have occasionally come to mark the Book Review.

Halsted declared, "How I yearn for the Book Review of old that did not try to push particular books or categories of books on me but always stimulated me with a careful selection of reviews of outstanding and important books on a wide variety of subjects, along with eye-catching book ads. Perusing The New York Times Book Review is a habit difficult to break. Please no more special-interest issues other than the year-end best books of the year..."

Halsted said he had thrown a May 28 special issue of the Book Review devoted exclusively to food into the wastebasket. And he said he felt "robbed" by the May 21 issue devoted exclusively to fiction.

Amen! More and more, it seems the nation's editors seem to be pushing special issues on the reading public. And in most cases, it is just too much.

The L.A. Times Magazine this Sunday had a special arts issue. Not being an arts devotee, I tossed it away without even opening it, when normally I read at least part of the magazine.

Time magazine, which like the L.A. Times has been having problems of sliding circulation, has become big on special issues, or packages of articles on a single subject that take up pages and pages. The magazine's own food issue a couple of weeks ago was just too much of a good thing. Though on a topic fairly interesting to me, I didn't read all of it.

It's one thing when there's a mammoth news event, like 9-11, that provides a subject that is so compelling, readers want more, more and more. But Time has become addicted to issues of the 100 most influential people, who seem to change every year, and marks them with tedious essays about how wonderful most of these people are.

I side with Halsted, who began his letter to the NYT Book Review, saying, "For more decades than I will enumerate I have hugely enjoyed the layout and approach of the Book Review. I like to scan the table of contents and then read the reviews whose titles and reviewers attract me, both fiction and and nonfiction categories. I liked the fact that each issue contained an interesting combination of fiction and nonfiction reviews as well as other interesting features. My mind was stretched by the diverse reviews in each issue."

So, he said, he was "dismayed" by the special interest issues.

Letters like this provide a real service. The L.A. Times letters columns seem to have dropped printing many critical letters, which I think is a mistake.

Avoiding special issues, incidentally, does not mean that editors should seek to truncate long articles or not run series of articles. There is a distinct place for them, and a good example was the L.A. Times series of three articles last week by Mike Goodman and Bill Rempel on corruption in the Las Vegas court system.

Such series might not be read by everyone, no article in the newspaper is, but they bring important facts to the reader's attention. The Las Vegas stories were an example of what the LAT does best and I was particularly happy to see Goodman return to the paper.

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