A Grave Injustice

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, April 2001

To the Editor:

Bruce Mazlish does the New York Times Book Review a grave injustice. He accuses the editors of "often" failing in elementary tasks. He blames them by implication for "an erratic choice of reviewers" and "ill-informed" reviews of a "dumbed-down selection of books." He says they exercise power with "little responsibility" and suggests they need his recommended seminar on how to write book reviews.

None of these accusations is justified. On the contrary, in my long labor as a reviewer, I have found the editors of the New York Times Book Review to be exemplary. They run careful checks to make sure that reviewers are not only qualified but also unprejudiced by any prior relations with the authors of books reviewed. They check every reference or close allusion a reviewer makes to the text of work under review, to ensure that no author is misquoted or traduced. Members of the AHA, most of whom are writers and reviewers, can appreciate how important such checks are, since misrepresentation by reviewers is one of the curses of academic life. Reviews the Times has commissioned from me have all been of scholarly works by academic historians, chosen by the editors not for their presumed popularity but for the importance of the subjects dealt with or the interest of the contents of the book. Standards of copyediting in the New York Times Book Review are exceptionally rigorous and, by the usual standards of the American press, editorial interventions are thoughtful and helpful and are always referred to the writer. Readers of reviews in the Times can rely on them in these respects—which, unfortunately, is more than can be said for most academic journals. The Times has exceptional resources of staff and funds to devote to the Book Review: the fact that they invest them so heavily and so freely is evidence of the high priority the paper gives to books. They should be commended for it.

—Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
University of London