Reviewing the Reviews

When I was growing up, The New York Times Book Review arrived on our doorstep every Saturday morning with the rest of the paper, and I was always the first to read it. I had little interest in the front-page news; each week, I cast aside headlines about wars and elections and dove straight into the book review. I was excited to see what new books had come out, which of the authors I had already read had published a new book, and how readers had responded to the previous week’s reviews. Later, when I began working in publishing, I had other reasons for my addiction to the Book Review section: I wanted to see whether any of the books I had worked on had made it to the bestseller list (um, never), and how the books published by rival companies had fared. I wouldn’t leave the breakfast table until I had read the whole section cover to cover, which meant that on most Shabbat mornings, I arrived quite late to shul….

In Israel, where I live now, the book review section arrives as part of the Wednesday paper, and so I am finished with it long before Shabbat. Haaretz Sfarim has replaced (or, more accurately, supplemented) The New York Times Book Review in my reading diet, but I devour it just as voraciously. Haaretz, too, has a bestseller list modeled after the New York Times list (with all the same data, categories, and even the same layout); and Haaretz, like the Times, reviews about a dozen books in each issue. But that is where the similarities end, and the peculiarities of Israeli publishing and the Israeli literary community set in.

First of all, over half the books reviewed in each Haaretz Sfarim section are translated titles. Likewise, a significant number of the bestselling titles are Hebrew renderings of English, French, German, Spanish or Italian titles (in roughly that order of frequency). Often I find myself reading reviews of titles that were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review two years ago. It is a bit of a strange experience to read a Hebrew article about a biography of John Adams; though I suppose it feels no more incongruous than my Israeli friends’ experience of reading books about Torah in English. And speaking of books about Jewish subjects, there is often at least one of those per issue; my favorite recently-reviewed Jewishly-related title was a book of recipes corresponding to the various weekly Torah portions, with lentil soup for Toldot and quail egg salad for B’haalotcha. Imagine seeing that one in the New York Times!

Other features of the Haaretz Sfarim section include a cartoon on the third page of every issue, which always involves at least one person who is reading a book. (A recent cartoon during the Gaza war was of a couple sitting in their living room absorbed in their books, oblivious to the air raid sirens blasting on the radio.) There is also the section on libraries, in which the owner of a vast home library somewhere in the country is profiled and asked several stock questions: How many books do you own? In which languages? What is your policy on lending books? Like the equally-fascinating “family” section in the weekly Haaretz magazine, which profiles a different Israeli family each week, this library profile is a reminder that in a country of seven million inhabitants, it is easier to depict the variegated whole by means of once-a-week samplings. Finally, each issue includes a literary riddle, in which the bookish detective A. Tzofia cracks a case by means of her familiarity with a particular work of literature. The identity of that work is left to the reader to figure out, and the answer is printed in the next week’s issue. You can be sure that come the following Wednesday morning, I am one of the first people to check.

Written for The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom:

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