25 Great Writers and Thinkers Weigh In on Books That Matter

Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion

Here is an excerpt from an especially important article written by Tina Jordan, Noor Qasim, and that appeared in The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.


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To celebrate the Book Review’s 125th anniversary, we’re dipping into the archives to revisit our most thrilling, memorable and thought-provoking coverage.

On Oct. 10, 1896, after years of robust literary coverage at The New York Times, the paper published the first issue of the Book Review.

In the 125 years since, that coverage has broadened and deepened. The Book Review has become a lens through which to view not just literature but the world at large, with scholars and thinkers weighing in on all of the people and issues and subjects covered in books on philosophy, art, science, economics, history and more.

In many ways, the Book Review’s history is that of American letters, and we’ll be using our 125th anniversary this year to celebrate and examine that history over the coming months. In essays, photo stories, timelines and other formats, we’ll highlight the books and authors that made it all possible.

Because, really, writers are at the heart of everything we do. Pairing a book with the right reviewer is a challenge, one that we relish. And we’ve been fortunate to feature the writing of so many illustrious figures in our pages — novelists, musicians, presidents, Nobel winners, CEOs, poets, playwrights — all offering their insights with wit and flair. Here are 25 of them.

Tell us: Who are the writers who have inspired you?

On Toni Cade Bambara’s “Tales and Stories for Black Folks”

Toni Morrison had just one novel under her belt when this review was published in 1971. One of the joys in our archives is to see — in retrospect — the understated descriptions of those who wrote for us. Morrison’s read: “Toni Morrison, an editor in a New York publishing house, is the author of ‘The Bluest Eye.’” “It is a most remarkable collection,” she wrote of Bambara’s work. “Joy aches and pain chuckles in these pages, and the entire book leaves you with the impression of silk — which is so nice because it was made by a living thing that had something on its mind, its survival no doubt.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. reviewed this account of the 1971 uprising at Attica prison written by Tom Wicker, who was a reporter, columnist and editor for The Times. The book mixed its reportage about the dramatic events at the prison with passages of autobiography. Leave it to Vonnegut to come up with a memorable comparison for what resulted: “The book is designed like a shish kebab, with novelistic scenes from ‘Wicker’s’ childhood and youth alternating with hard‐edged episodes from Attica, and with Tom Wicker himself as the skewer. The materials placed shoulder‐to‐shoulder on the skewer are as unlike as ripe peaches and hand grenades.”

Talk about two heavyweights. On the cover of our Oct. 7, 1979, issue, Joan Didion reviewed Mailer’s epic, genre-defying novel about the infamous Gary Gilmore, who murdered two people in Utah and later demanded that the state follow through with his execution for the crime. Much more than just the story of a crime and a very public death penalty debate, Mailer’s book captured the desperate side of life in the American West. “I think no one but Mailer could have dared this book,” Didion wrote. “The authentic Western voice, the voice heard in ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.”

Here is a direct link to the complete article.


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