“In this publication was carried out an idea of the publisher of The Times that a newspaper book review should be a literary newspaper, treating newly published books as news and containing besides other news of literary happenings,” Elmer Davis wrote in “History of The New York Times, 1851-1921.”
“‘Books as news” remained the Book Review’s watchword for years. “Literary criticism, an excellent thing in its way, but properly speaking, a means rather than an end, has never been the chief object of its existence,” the Book Review reiterated in 1913. “An open forum for the discussion of books from all sane and honest points of view is always accessible in The New York Times Book Review.”
As time passed, the Book Review evolved, shedding its “books as news” dictum and embracing literary criticism, essays, theories and ideas. It became a lens through which to view not only literature but also the world at large, with scholars and thinkers weighing in on all the people and issues and subjects covered in books: philosophy, art, science, economics, history, art and more.
J. Donald Adams, who was appointed editor of the Book Review in 1925, later recalled: “When I took over, The Times thought that all you had to do was tell people what was in the books. I wanted to make the Book Review something more than that.” Under him, reviews became more opinionated and the coverage broader and deeper. “Dissent in itself can be exciting, can bring light into gray corners,” Francis Brown wrote in a short history of the Book Review in 1968. “As our culture becomes more and more unified, diversity is a quality to be cherished and cultivated, and how dull it would be, how stultifying, to find ourselves in agreement on politics, aesthetics or what you will — and most of all on books, which by their very being testify to the diversity of man.”