25 Great Writers and Thinkers Weigh In on Books That Matter

On Oct. 10, 1896, after years of robust literary coverage at The New York Times, the paper published the first issue of the Book Review.

In the 125 years since, that coverage has broadened and deepened. The Book Review has become a lens through which to view not just literature but the world at large, with scholars and thinkers weighing in on all of the people and issues and subjects covered in books on philosophy, art, science, economics, history and more.

In many ways, the Book Review’s history is that of American letters, and we’ll be using our 125th anniversary this year to celebrate and examine that history over the coming months. In essays, photo stories, timelines and other formats, we’ll highlight the books and authors that made it all possible.

Because, really, writers are at the heart of everything we do. Pairing a book with the right reviewer is a challenge, one that we relish. And we’ve been fortunate to feature the writing of so many illustrious figures in our pages — novelists, musicians, presidents, Nobel winners, CEOs, poets, playwrights — all offering their insights with wit and flair. Here are 25 of them.

H.G. Wells | Vladimir Nabokov | Tennessee Williams | Patricia Highsmith | Shirley Jackson | Eudora Welty | Langston Hughes | Dorothy Parker | John F. Kennedy | Nora Ephron | Toni Morrison | John Kenneth Galbraith | Nikki Giovanni | James Baldwin | Kurt Vonnegut Jr. | Joan Didion | Derek Walcott | Margaret Atwood | Ursula K. Le Guin | Stephen King | Jhumpa Lahiri | Mario Vargas Llosa | Colson Whitehead | Patti Smith | Bill Gates



1913

H.G. Wells, the author of science fiction classics like “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds,” admitted that he had a personal interest in this work about his fellow author George Gissing (who was oddly given the pseudonym Henry Maitland in a book that was clearly about him). “In so far that I have on several occasions encouraged Mr. Roberts to write it,” Wells wrote, “I feel myself a little involved in the responsibility for it.” He must have left Roberts feeling a bit less than grateful for the encouragement when he judged: “It is no use pretending that Mr. Roberts’s book is not downright bad, careless in statement, squalid in effect, poor as criticism, weakly planned and entirely without any literary distinction.”

1949

Nabokov was not yet a household name in the United States (that would come about a decade later, with the publication here of “Lolita”) when he reviewed Sartre’s philosophical novel about Antoine Roquentin, a French historian troubled by the very fact of existence. “Sartre’s name, I understand, is associated with a fashionable brand of cafe philosophy, and since for every so-called ‘existentialist’ one finds quite a few ‘suctorialists’ (if I may coin a polite term), this made-in-England translation of Sartre’s first novel, ‘La Nausée,’ should enjoy some success.”

1949

Williams, who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” reviewed this debut novel by Bowles, which went on to be acclaimed as one of the best of the 20th century. The story mercilessly follows a young married couple from New York adrift in the North African desert. “I suspect that a good many people will read this book,” Williams wrote, “without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.”

1950

When she wrote this brief review, Patricia Highsmith was the author of one novel, “Strangers on a Train.” She would go on to worldwide fame for that and other thrillers, including the ones that feature Tom Ripley. The author she reviewed, the French mountaineer R. Frison-Roche, is now relatively obscure. “This is exactly the kind of novel one would expect a Chamonix guide to write — blunt in style and treatment, unevenly paced, about mountain climbing, of course, and authentic down to the last piton, the last breathtaking moment before the summit.” More tantalizingly, Highsmith added: “There is a delightful and unexpected chapter about a cow battle that is fully as dramatic as the mountain scaling.”

1950

One of the stranger matchups of big names in our archives is this review of the sports columnist Red Smith’s work by Shirley Jackson, the author of “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” Jackson wrote about her enjoyment of watching sports on TV. Though she had “limited knowledge” of sportswriters at the time, Smith’s book won her over. “There are some otherwise modest, sensitive females — I am among them — who are become brazen snatchers of the sports page from the morning paper, and only a book like Red Smith’s shows me what I have been missing by not getting into this field sooner. Reading ‘Out of the Red’ has been, actually, an educational experience unlike almost anything I have known since first looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

1952

Eudora Welty’s review of this timeless tale is a sheer delight, starting from its headline (“Life in the Barn Was Very Good”) and its first sentence (“E.B. White has written his book for children, which is nice for us older ones as it calls for big type”). Unlike contemporary reviews that get future classics “wrong,” Welty — who worked briefly as an editor at the Book Review during World War II — saw this accomplishment clear in the moment. “What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time,” she wrote. “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”

1956

In this review, Langston Hughes, an eminent literary figure and chronicler of the Black experience in the United States, took the measure of this first collection of essays by Baldwin. He was impressed: “He uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing.” He suggested that Baldwin still had room to grow, but that “America and the world might well have a major contemporary commentator.”

1957

To no one’s surprise, Dorothy Parker, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, was funny in this review of work by her fellow humor writer. She begins it: “It is a strange force that compels a writer to be a humorist. It is a strange force, if you care to go back farther, that compels anyone to be a writer at all, but this is neither the time nor the place to bring up that matter. The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats?” But while Parker was part of a “vicious circle,” and known for her piercing barbs, she happily praised Perelman, who, she wrote, “stands alone” in his field.

1959

John F. Kennedy was the author of three books and still a Massachusetts senator when he reviewed this book, an attempt to define for the world what America believed in beyond simply opposition to the Soviet Union and Communism. Larson was a Republican who had worked with labor issues and had been a top speechwriter for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Though the book’s style is somewhat discursive and here and there perhaps a trifle condescending,” Kennedy wrote, “Mr. Larson does succeed very well in portraying the dangers of analyzing American society in terms of class distinctions or rigid economic interests. Though it is not a new theme, he is very successful in reminding us of the ‘kaleidoscope of apparently inexplicable mixtures of political coloration across the landscape.’”

1968

In this review, the filmmaker, director and writer Nora Ephron marveled at how the young Reed got his show-business subjects to say the things they said to him. Those subjects included Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty and Lucille Ball. Ephron’s opening is a classic: “Rex Reed is a saucy, snoopy, bitchy man who sees with sharp eyes and writes with a mean pen and succeeds in making voyeurs of us all. If any of this sounds like I don’t like Rex Reed, let me correct that impression. I love Rex Reed.”

1971

Toni Morrison had just one novel under her belt when this review was published in 1971. One of the joys in our archives is to see — in retrospect — the understated descriptions of those who wrote for us. Morrison’s read: “Toni Morrison, an editor in a New York publishing house, is the author of ‘The Bluest Eye.’” “It is a most remarkable collection,” she wrote of Bambara’s work. “Joy aches and pain chuckles in these pages, and the entire book leaves you with the impression of silk — which is so nice because it was made by a living thing that had something on its mind, its survival no doubt.”

1971

“Truth, not unconvincing humility, is the grandest virtue and accordingly I may observe that I am better qualified than any man alive to review a book on the public life of Chester Bowles.” The iconoclastic economist and prolific author John Kenneth Galbraith began his review this way because he and Bowles had held some of the same positions of power and had worked together on presidential campaigns. In so doing, they had become friends, which, Galbraith wrote, “is a disadvantage only if the book in question is bad. Only then do you have to consider whether the author should get the truth from you or someone else. This, fortunately, is an extremely good book.”

1974

The acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni has written verse for children as well as adults, so she was the ideal reviewer for this novel, which was written for young readers but dealt with difficult, mature subjects. Hamilton’s novel, which won a Newbery Medal and a National Book Award, concerns a young boy hoping to save a local mountain from the ravages of strip mining. “‘M.C. Higgins, the Great’ is not an adorable book, not a lived‐happily‐ever‐after kind of story. It is warm, humane and hopeful and does what every book should do — creates characters with whom we can identify and for whom we care. … We’re glad Miss Hamilton is a writer. It makes the world just a little bit richer and our lives just a little bit warmer.”

1975

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. reviewed this account of the 1971 uprising at Attica prison written by Tom Wicker, who was a reporter, columnist and editor for The Times. The book mixed its reportage about the dramatic events at the prison with passages of autobiography. Leave it to Vonnegut to come up with a memorable comparison for what resulted: “The book is designed like a shish kebab, with novelistic scenes from ‘Wicker’s’ childhood and youth alternating with hard‐edged episodes from Attica, and with Tom Wicker himself as the skewer. The materials placed shoulder‐to‐shoulder on the skewer are as unlike as ripe peaches and hand grenades.”

1976

The Book Review has always taken pride in finding the right reviewers for the right books, and that is only heightened when a book is a true event, like Alex Haley’s “Roots,” which spent months at No. 1 on The Times’s best-seller list. The great James Baldwin’s piece is something still worth reading and considering today. He wrote of “Roots”: “It suggests with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.”

1979

Talk about two heavyweights. On the cover of our Oct. 7, 1979, issue, Didion reviewed Mailer’s epic, genre-defying novel about the infamous Gary Gilmore, who murdered two people in Utah and later demanded that the state follow through with his execution for the crime. Much more than just the story of a crime and a very public death penalty debate, Mailer’s book captured the desperate side of life in the American West. “I think no one but Mailer could have dared this book,” Didion wrote. “The authentic Western voice, the voice heard in ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.”

1983

The poet Derek Walcott, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, reviewed this book about the French aviator Louis Blériot and his flight across the English Channel, 18 years before Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. “Gaiety and true bravery are close in legend, and this spaciously crafted and modestly presented book is very much in the spirit of its subject,” Walcott wrote. “Fact is turned into magic, very quietly. The return to innocence requires gay and brave strides; the light on the way there is direct, the flight natural and simple, and ‘The Glorious Flight’ has made it.”

1987

Sometimes a book that will become an undisputed classic is met at the moment of its publication with appropriate awe. Such was the case with Morrison’s “Beloved,” a remarkable ghost story set in the years after the Civil War. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and in 2006 was named the best novel of the previous 25 years by a group of prominent writers, critics and editors polled by the Book Review. In her original review of the book in 1987, Margaret Atwood — the author of her own classics, like “The Handmaid’s Tale” — wrote: “‘Beloved’ is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, and another triumph. Indeed, Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, ‘Beloved’ will put them to rest. In three words or less, it’s a hair-raiser.”

1991

The critic Harold Bloom once said that Ursula K. Le Guin had “raised fantasy into high literature for our time.” In this review of another iconic writer of literary science fiction, Le Guin captured the scope and relevance of Ballard’s themes. “The brilliant, obsessive fictions of J.G. Ballard circle through a round of almost canonical topics of modernist literature and film: the Conradian jungle and its white folk, consumerist America and the ugly American, popular cult figures such as astronauts and film stars, T.S. Eliot’s ‘waste land’ and ‘unreal city.’ Through these and other landscapes of alienation, stock figures move in meticulous patterns toward a predictably shocking conclusion. The voltage is high, but it’s all in the mind.”

1999

Dark imaginations collide in this review. (If Thomas Harris hadn’t invented Hannibal Lecter, perhaps eventually Stephen King would have?) This was Lecter’s first appearance in a novel in 11 years — and the first since the film adaptation of “The Silence of the Lambs” had made him a household name. “I don’t think many of the Danielle Steel crowd will be rushing out to buy a book in which one character is eaten from the inside out by a ravenous moray eel — but for those who like what Harris can do so brilliantly, no book report is required.”

2000

We like to keep our eyes peeled for the newest talents here at the Book Review, and here is a vintage example. About a month after this review was published, Jhumpa Lahiri would win a Pulitzer Prize for her debut collection of stories, “Interpreter of Maladies.” And here she was reviewing the debut novel by Mohsin Hamid, who was embarking on his own award-winning career. “Like Fitzgerald, Hamid writes about the slippery ties between the extremely wealthy and those who hover, and generally stumble, in money’s glare,” Lahiri wrote. “Hamid also sets the action over a single, degenerate summer, when passions run high and moral lassitude prevails. And like Fitzgerald, Hamid probes the vulgarity and violence that lurk beneath a surface of affluence and ease.”

2000

The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, delivered a sweeping review of this biography of the Argentine writer Manuel Puig. In it, Llosa considered everything from the influence of the movies on Puig to what made his work so original to whether that work has the “revolutionary transcendence attributed to it by Levine and other critics.” He praised Levine’s own work: “This fascinating book is indispensable for anyone interested in Puig’s work (which Levine, the translator of several of his novels into English, knows to perfection) and in the close connection between film and literature, a defining characteristic of cultural life in the late 20th century; both are described with intelligence and an abundance of information. I found occasional errors, but these in no way diminish the virtues of a book in which rigor and readability walk arm in arm.”

2006

As we celebrate 125 years of the Book Review, we’ll spend time not just in the distant past but in the vibrant present. Few writers this century are as acclaimed as Colson Whitehead, the author of several novels and the winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for “The Underground Railroad” (2016). In 2019, Richard Powers joined the list of Pulitzer winners as well, for “The Overstory.” But back in 2006, when both were simply very acclaimed authors, Whitehead reviewed this novel about a man who suffers from a rare cognitive disorder after a near-fatal car accident. “Part of the joy of reading Powers over the years has been his capacity for revelation,” Whitehead wrote. “His scientific discourses point to how the world works, but the struggles of his characters … help us understand how we work.”

2014

A longtime rock star and poet, Patti Smith became an award-winning memoirist with the publication of “Just Kids” in 2010. We also think she’s a fine reviewer. She brought her deep knowledge of the work of Haruki Murakami to this assessment of his 13th novel. “This is a book for both the new and experienced reader. It has a strange casualness, as if it unfolded as Murakami wrote it; at times, it seems like a prequel to a whole other narrative. The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another.”

2018

Yes, we love to publish work by prominent novelists, essayists, poets, journalists, historians. But sometimes it’s a thrill to have someone weigh in who is (very, very well) known for something other than books. And who better to review a look at the 21st century than Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, who did so much to shape the world we live in? “Harari is such a stimulating writer that even when I disagreed, I wanted to keep reading and thinking. All three of his books wrestle with some version of the same question: What will give our lives meaning in the decades and centuries ahead? … It’s no criticism to say that Harari hasn’t produced a satisfying answer yet. Neither has anyone else. So I hope he turns more fully to this question in the future.”

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