The Books The Atlantic Loved—And Hated

the books the atlantic loved—and hated

The Books The Atlantic Loved—And Hated

This is an edition of Time-Travel Thursdays, a journey through The Atlantic’s archives to contextualize the present and surface delightful treasures. Sign up here.

Working on the Books desk of a 167-year-old publication offers incredible opportunities—and dredges up some insecurities. Will our judgment hold up to future readers’ evaluations? Is the work we’re putting out worthy of the magazine’s illustrious traditions? Over the years, The Atlantic’s literary coverage has taken on both the task of criticism—or situating a work in its era, evaluating its ideas, and considering its symbols—and of reviewing which titles are worth people’s time and why. Today, my job includes editing book recommendations and essays on new releases, and contributing to avowedly ambitious projects such as our recent list of great American novels. This involves listening to the opinions and disagreements of our contemporary readers. But there’s also an entire archive full of people who talk back, disagree, and weigh in, too.

That catalog is full of curiosities. Sometimes initial reviews of works that have since joined the canon are shockingly brief, taking up just a few inches of space in the physical magazine. The Bell Jar got roughly 150 words in 1971, the year it appeared in the United States for the first time—even though “the author hoped it never would, understandably since it is not really a good novel, although extremely promising as first novels go,” Phoebe Lou Adams wrote. (That last comment is especially grim because Sylvia Plath was dead by the time the review was released.) In 1945, D. C. Russell evaluated Raymond Chandler, and tempered his praise with the warning that Chandler’s hard-boiled formula might be getting him into “a rut.” Some pieces are incredibly long, much longer than we’d run now—and not always to their betterment, unfortunately. Others passionately extol the virtues of books pretty much forgotten today: For example, in 1934, we printed a rave review for Men Against the Sea, the second installment in a historical-fiction trilogy about the aftermath of the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty.

I’m frequently surprised by how many articles in the archive feel prescient and relatable. In 1957, Alfred A. Knopf weighed in on the changes he’d seen in publishing. “It becomes more and more difficult to get a reasonable hearing for a book that is simply good—not a world-shaking masterpiece, not the choice of a major book club, not to be made into a supercolossal movie, but just a good book,” he wrote, which is a sentiment I could have expressed yesterday. In 1873, Arthur George Sedgwick reviewed Middlemarch, and attempted to evaluate the novel in the context of George Eliot’s career, analyze its theme of fate, and think widely about English literature—but in the end, he ruefully dismissed the whole project. “In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed,” he wrote. It’s a feeling that any working critic probably sympathizes with. And in 1922, Carl S. Patton published a long article on another familiar dilemma: Buying new books when at home there’s “an ever-increasing number of books that I have not read.” (Same.)

Seeing how many people over many years have thought about and wrestled with the same things as I have is heartening, and reassuring, and humbling. It reminds me that the work we’re doing today might be similarly reread and reevaluated in the future, and that initial reviews are merely the first draft of a book’s reception. Styles and methods have changed over time, but we’re doing the same thing as writers of the past: adding our voices to the archive.

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