In the course of 2009, I've learned an entirely new and unwanted habit when it comes to the Penny Press: I've learned to approach each new issue of The Atlantic not with suffusing, eager joy but with snakebit wariness. And I've learned this for the simplest, ugliest reason imaginable: the magazine - once the hands-down best in American publishing - has become a faint echo of its former self. Whole issues will unspool now with virtually nothing in them worth reading, let alone saving.
Since I was as devoted to that former glorious self as anybody (in fact, perhaps a bit more so, since I've had a couple of good friends who've worked for the venerable magazine, in one capacity or another), I've naturally cast around for reasons why it's declined. Was it the move of the editorial offices from Boston to Washington D.C.? Was it the slimming down of article-length, in an attempt to cater to the X-Box generation? No single explanation seemed sufficient, but at least, I told myself, there were still bastions on any typical Atlantic table of contents - as derivative as he can often be, Christopher Hitchens can still knock an essay out of the park when he bestirs himself to do so, and the lingering prestige of the magazine can attract some of the best freelancers in the business, sometimes with stimulating results.
And of course there's Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic's resident book-critic. He's been called - by me and others - one of the best book reviewers working today, but these last couple of years have tried my patience with my own accolade. I've lost count of how many times in the last few months I've turned to the back of a new issue in the hopes of reading one of his fantastic, meaty ramblings on some hefty tome (that was one of the things that first enamored me of him as a writer - like me, he fancies hefty tomes) - only to find 4000 words on the latest handbag line from Prada, or what hemlines were like in the 1950s (as described by the book under review, a 100 page $1500 coffee table book called What Hemlines Were Like In The 1950s). Months and months would go by without him talking substantively about anything substantial, and of course I asked myself why.
So you can imagine some of the thoughts that went through my head when I saw the cover of the latest Atlantic - in addition to all the other content being advertised, there it was, right at the top left: "The Best Books of 2009 by Benjamin Schwarz." Maybe this, I thought, is the reason, as far-fetched as it seems - maybe he's been saving his energies for a long, engrossing round-up of the incredibly crowded 2009 book season. I squirreled the issue into my shoulder bag and set aside time to curl up with it - not only personally curious, but of course also professionally, as it were, curious, since I myself am preparing my annual Best and Worst Books of 2009 extravaganza here at Stevereads.
When I turned to the page listed on the table of contents, that's exactly what I found: one page. Under a cliche banner (and spot-illustrated with ineptly drawn hands, for reasons eluding understanding), there were six books listed:
Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame
The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt
The Third Reich Trilogy (concluding with The Third Reich At War) by Richard Evans
It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Each book is accompanied by a single-sentence summary (and a hand), and heading the whole thing is this line: "For full reviews, see www.atlantic.com/books2009.
I just sat there looking at the crappy design, the inept hands, and the single sentences - it took me a minute or two to realize that I was being directed to the website ... not for a couple of additional paragraphs of outtakes, not for an interview or slideshow with the author, but for the article itself. The blurb on the issue's cover had been true only in the barest, most Clintonian sense of 'by' Benjamin Schwarz.
For the first and only time here at Stevereads, I actually went to the website (after first rescuing my curled-up reading time by pouring over the latest GQ, about which perhaps more later, when I'm not so steamed). By that point my curiosity had taken on a slightly garish hue - I'm certain somebody somewhere at The Atlantic thought this was a good idea, or at least a revenue-enhancing one. As distasteful as I found it, I thought: A Benjamin Schwarz "Best Books of 2009" will be worth the digital debasement."
But the debasement wasn't over yet. When I got to the online feature, I found - the exact same virtually nonexistent crap I found in the magazine itself: the same 'top five' entries (the Alice Munro seems to get a free pass by being included in the issue's graphic despite not actually being in the 'top five'), the same one-sentence summaries, and precious little else. The Burlingame Lincoln biography had a link to Christopher Hitchens' review of the book, and the Byatt and the Lasdun each had links to The Atlantic's "Cover to Cover" feature, in which each book got a paragraph of anonymous plot summary. The Evans book doesn't even have a link to Schwarz's own review of the thing from last spring, let alone anything new from our esteemed book critic. "Read the full review" I was urged to do - but except for the Hitchens piece, there were no full - or even partial - reviews to be found, and none by Schwarz himself, the guy I came to read.
And it gets worse. Those titles were followed by a longer list of 'runners up' - here it is:
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Dominion from Sea to Sea by Bruce Cumings
The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton
The Hundred Years War vol . 3 by Jonathan Sumption
The Hindus by Wendt Doniger
Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood
The Thirty Years War by Peter Wilson
This Time is Different by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff
Florence Nightingale: A Life by Mark Bostridge
Flannery: A Life by Brad Gooch
Samuel Johson: A Biography by Peter Martin
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali
Reading Dance, edited by Robert Gottlieb
Words in the Air (the Robert Lowell/Elizabeth Bishop correspondence)
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Arabs by Eugene Rogan
Northern Arts by Arnold Weinstein
The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson
Three Victories and a Defeat by Brendan Simms
Collected Stories by Lydia Davis
Of the books on that longer list, only the first one, the Munro, has a link - to a "Cover to Cover" one-paragraph plot summary. All the others have no editorial commentary at all - just hyperlinks to amazon.com. This "Best Books" list bears not one ridge of a fingerprint by Benjamin Schwarz - given sufficient time and Milkbone snacks, I could teach my basset hound how to cut-and-paste something like this. It's all the more tantalizing that fully half the titles listed as 'runners up' are, in fact, hefty tomes - exactly the sort of dense, in-depth stuff Schwarz used to show a marked predilection for both reading and reviewing. Although I have absolutely no prose to back up my assertion, I'm fairly certain this list does indeed represent Scwarz's favorite new reading of 2009.
But geez, what a crappy, half-assed job it does representing that! There almost no list to speak of in the actual Atlantic issue itself; I set aside both time and myself, opened the issue, and found stuff missing - surely not the shock the magazine's powers that be wish to deliver to the hundreds of readers just like me who must have felt the same thing. And when I followed instructions and went in search of that missing stuff - went in search of Benjamin Schwarz reflecting on, writing about, telling us about his Best Books picks, I found a skeletal list with no accompanying writing at all. Just titles and authors, like the whole thing was generated by a 'Star Trek' style computer algorithm, rather than a dedicated lifelong reader.
Which raises two intertwined questions: First, why couldn't such an insultingly minimal Maxim-style list have been simply printed in the magazine (instead of making readers go hunting online for it), and second, what's gone so badly wrong with The Atlantic that such a lazy travesty could happen at all? Why the primacy given to driving 'traffic' to the website? Why the bait-and-switch in which the actual physical magazine is treated like a chintzy little calling card? Why the barbaric assumption that 20 lines would be more attractive to your readers than 20 paragraphs?
I think the answer to the first question is that The Atlantic wanted every single reader to go to the website out of curiosity to read Benjamin Schwarz's book-picks for the year. And as to why that would be so hugely important to them - well, perhaps it's not the X-box generation or the move to D.C. at all: perhaps the reason for The Atlantic's recent dummification can be summed up in two words: Andrew Sullivan.
And as to why a book critic of Benjamin Scwarz's immense gifts would put his name to something this threadbare - well, I have no answer for that at all.
No need to worry about monkey-see monkey-do, however! My own Stevereads Best and Worst of 2009 won't be skimpy! You'll get your money's worth!