Why We Need Book Reviews

Books are where the knowledge is. A flourishing democracy depends on a culture that cares about and talks about books.

The magazine Bookforum has just announced that after 28 years of publication, it is being dissolved and will stop publication after its next issue.((Note June 11, 2024: Bookforum resumed publication in August 2023 thanks to The Nation.)) Coincidentally, I had actually just been talking about Bookforum a couple of days ago. A publisher mentioned that authors resent it when publishers can’t get the authors’ books reviewed in many outlets. The publisher thought this criticism was unfair, since there just aren’t many outlets these days that review books. “Yeah,” I replied. “It’s down to like the NYT and Bookforum.” Well, so much for Bookforum.

One of my snobbier opinions is that it’s hard to be particularly well-informed if you don’t read (or listen to) books. I don’t go as far as John Waters, who said “if you go home with someone, and they don’t have books in their house, don’t fuck them.” Fuck who you like. But I do think that a great deal of the most valuable knowledge humankind possesses is not on Twitter or even accessible via a Google search. It’s buried deep inside books written by people who know a subject intimately. And I’m frightened of a society whose people don’t read books, because their opinions on very serious subjects will inevitably be shallow. One of the things that is most obvious to me about some of the public commentators I am most disdainful of—Peterson, Shapiro, Rogan, et al.—is that they have long since stopped doing real reading. Sometimes people write books who obviously don’t read books (you can usually tell by looking at the endnotes, and checking the notes of writers like Yuval Noah Harari and Heather Mac Donald shows just how narrow their reading is). It tells you everything that disgraced crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried said he would “never read a book,” because “if you wrote a book, you f—ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” He might have benefited from checking out some titles like The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, or even the 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

If there is not much of a “book discussion” culture, it’s not for a lack of good books being published. In fact, as the host of the Current Affairs podcast, I interview two authors a week, and I am constantly amazed by just how many phenomenal books are published all the time. In the last few weeks, we’ve covered Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Astrotopia (about what the Musk-Bezos plans for space colonization have in common with previous colonial ideas), Daniel Akst’s War By Other Means (about the fascinating figures who were conscientious objectors during World War II), Wendy Woloson’s Crap (about our country’s strange love of cheap plastic shit), Christian Appy’s Patriots (a magisterial oral history of the Vietnam War) and Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue (a blistering response to right-wing nonsense about trans people). All of these are great books about topics that matter, by people who really know their stuff. (A very incomplete list of some other excellent books we’ve covered is available in our Author Library.) 

But where do books get reviewed these days? The New York Times reports that Bookforum really was one of the main places where new authors could get in-depth consideration of their work. (Indeed, my own first major book, Why You Should Be a Socialist, was reviewed there, where it was called “breezy, jokey, and rooted in a sense of fierce moral urgency.”) Frank Guan, in The Nation, notes that across the country, “In 2022, only one newspaper still maintains a stand-alone book review: The New York Times. No more than a dozen staff critic positions exist to serve a nation of 330 million.” As a result, tons of great books simply don’t get reviewed anywhere. The writer works on the project for years and then might as well throw the manuscript into a black hole for all the attention it is likely to get.

If Bookforum was one of the only dedicated book reviews left, why did it shut down? The story still isn’t clear (the magazine hasn’t shared information publicly), but Bookforum and Artforum (from which Bookforum spun off) were purchased a week ago by a giant corporate publishing conglomerate, Penske Media Corporation, which also owns Variety, Rolling Stone, and Billboard. It seems Penske CEO Jay Penske (a multimillionaire heir) simply took a look at his portfolio of “assets” and decided that Bookforum was underperforming relative to where he wanted it to be. Because an owner can do whatever they want with their property, it doesn’t matter if the readers and staff of Bookforum wanted it to survive, or some group would have been prepared to take it over and run it as a nonprofit. What the owner says goes, and the owner can simply destroy a magazine they don’t feel a need to keep alive, even if everyone involved with its production would like to keep it going, and even if it is financially viable. 

In fact, it’s unlikely that Bookforum was unable to survive. As the publisher of an independent, not for profit print magazine, I know well that while it’s very hard work to keep such an enterprise afloat, it can be done, and Current Affairs has a much smaller circulation than Bookforum did. I am sure there was a way to save it, if those making the decisions had cared enough to try. This shows why we desperately need to have independently-owned media organizations that are not beholden to billionaire owners. Otherwise, the whims or self-interest of the rich guy at the top will determine what the publication is like, and whether it continues to exist at all. 

The loss of Bookforum is a tragedy, and probably a completely unnecessary one. We need a culture that talks (and argues) about books. Books make us smart, and being smart (which is not synonymous with being credentialed or having a high “IQ”) is crucial if the members of a democratic society are going to make good governance decisions. As book reviews disappear, so does intelligent public discussion about history, politics, and culture. 

Here at Current Affairs, we’re doing our best to keep that kind of public discussion alive. I try to bring neglected books to wider attention. (If you’ve got books whose authors you’d like to see interviewed, do email editor@currentaffairs.org with suggestions.) But it’s very, very hard for an independent media organization to keep going, and those of us doing it without billionaire backers are dependent on reader support. This holiday season, consider giving support to your favorite independent media project, whether it’s this one or another. Billionaires destroy everything they touch, but for non-billionaire-owned institutions to survive, they need mass support from the reading public. The alternative is a disturbing world where books go unread and unreviewed, with people reading a never-ending stream of Elon Musk’s tweets rather than great literature or analysis. 

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