The Sunday New York Times Book Review for undisclosed reasons tapped the newspaper's daily book reviewers to compile the 50 best memoirs of the last 50 years.
Times daily critics have traditionally remained separate from the Sunday Book Review, given over to outside reviewers. But that longstanding editorial wall was breached Sunday without any explanation.
Daily critics Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai compiled the list and wrote capsule summaries of their selections. In years past, the feature would have appeared in the daily Arts section rather than the Sunday Book Review.
The list appeared conclusive. The New York-centric No. 1 choice, Vivian Gornick's "The Odd Woman and the City," was a surprise. Celebrated memoirs such as Mary Karr's "The Liars Club" and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" appeared down the list.
Another curious choice was the inclusion of Keith Richards' "Life" over Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume 1." The Rolling Stones guitarist's book was written with journalist James Fox, while Dylan, a Nobel Prize winner, reportedly wrote his book by himself. That increases the literary value of Dylan's book, although it was hampered by accusations of plagiarism. If true, at least Dylan lifted passages from great writers like Mark Twain.
And what about Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run?"
I don't know the cutoff date, but Michelle Obama's recent best-seller "Becoming" wasn't on the list. Nor was Tara Westover's "Educated." A few other recent best-sellers were also excluded, such as J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy."
The daily Times reviewers' feature gave a needed shot of readability to the Book Review's dreary pages. Garner, Sehgal and Szalai however succumbed too often to Times reviewer-ese. Could the Times ban the word "indelible" from its reviews? That word gives me indigestion when I see it.
Also, either Sehal or Szalai resorted to the cliche "at the the end of the day," which probably would have been excised in the days when The Times had a copy desk.
The feature should be useful for those looking for outstanding memoirs, although I've never quite grasped when autobiographies turned into memoirs. There's some technical difference, but no one writes autobiographies anymore. Also, writers like Karr once turned personal experiences into novels, rather than pushing their life stories as nonfictional. There wasn't even a separate memoirs genre until Karr's book.
I can think of only a couple of memoirs that might have been included. Russell Baker's "Growing Up" was definitely a must selection, but another Timesman's memoir, Arthur Gelb's "Newsroom" could have been part of the list.
Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking" was a worthy choice, but I would have liked "Harp," by her husband, John Gregory Dunne, chosen as well. A few other strong memoirs were left off in favor of trendy favorites such as "Priest-Daddy."
Times watchers might wonder if the feature will set a precedent for Times reviewers to appear in the Sunday Book Review. Book coverage is less and less prevalent in the newspaper's daily Arts section, and Times book coverage had been consolidated under one editor in recent years.
Shifting the daily critics to the Sunday Book Review would mark a major change in the newspaper's editorial philosophy. In the past, readers received a broad field of criticism from the newspaper, with Times daily reviewers followed by outside reviewers in the Sunday Book Review. Placing daily reviewers in the Sunday Book Review would mean fewer critical voices.