Just when you think the New York Times Book Review couldn’t get any sleazier, editor Sam Tanenhaus has proven yet again that there isn’t an unctuous pool he won’t dive into. The latest disgrace is Ruth Conniff’s review of Bill Keller’s Tree Shaker. Bill Keller, of course, is the executive editor of the New York Times and Conniff’s review is perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest in the NYTBR‘s entire history. Conniff isn’t critical one whit about Tree Shaker. The review may as well have recycled the book’s press release. But Conniff (or perhaps the editors) have no problem invoking these boilerplate plaudits:
With its striking layout, bright graphics and photographs on almost every page, Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history come alive.
This book does not condescend to its young audience, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.
We learn that Keller, despite writing a children’s book, is “more a historian here than a biographer.” (Never mind that the book is a mere 128 pages.) We learn that he wrote “a thoughtful afterword.” The only thing missing in this review is a phone number for New York Times readers to confess their conversion from Christianity to the Church of Keller.
I’m still puzzled why Conniff didn’t declare Bill Keller “the greatest writer in the history of children’s literature” or “the most profound humanitarian since Gandhi.” Why didn’t Conniff demand that all literary people supplicate before Keller’s dais, declare Lord Bill the True Leader, and be prepared to sacrifice their babies to the volcano?
Tanenhaus doesn’t stop there. In addition to featuring a ten minute podcast interview with Keller on the Times website, he also offers the first chapter.
Of course, it’s just possible that Conniff really did love the book. But when one examines the first chapter, Keller’s writing deficiencies become self-evident. Grammarians will wince at the folksy use of “gotten” and the sloppy “past half a century.” A double “was now” has managed to escape the copy editor’s eye. We learn that Ahmed Kathrada is “a thoughtful man” because he “earned multiple college degrees while in prison.” We get awkward redundancies such as “Then we rode to their old cellblock, where Mandela posed for pictures in his cell…” (In his cell? No kidding?)
Beyond these flubs, there is nothing more here than dry generalized description that could have been easily cadged from the back of a travel brochure.
That such a book would be uncritically accepted and that such a review would be published in a section that purports to be a critical beacon are salient indicators that, when it comes to dealing with top brass, Sam Tanenhaus is nothing more than a literary lapdancer.