Past presidents and soon-to-be presidents have long written for the Book Review — Herbert Hoover, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy. The very first one to do so, though, was Theodore Roosevelt, on Oct. 13, 1918. It was clearly quite a coup for the Book Review, then just over two decades old, to persuade the former president to review “Jungle Peace,” a new volume from the explorer and naturalist William Beebe about the jungles of Guyana.
To say that Roosevelt loved the book is an understatement. “Mr. Beebe’s volume is one of the rare books which represent a positive addition to the sum total of genuine literature,” he wrote. “In it are records of extraordinary scientific interest, in language which has all the charm of an essay of Robert Louis Stevenson. He tells of bird and beast and plant and insect. … Whatever he touches he turns into the gold of truth rightly interpreted and vividly set forth — as witness his extraordinary account of the sleeping parlor of certain gorgeous tropical butterflies.”
The “Jungle Peace” review appeared in the Book Review’s annual fall preview issue. According to an editor’s note, paper shortages and “the great change, since the war, of publishers’ output” forced the Book Review to sharply curtail the number of titles featured — only 100, instead of the customary 300 or 500. Space was at such a premium in the issue that even the former president was apparently given a word count; his review ended on the front page instead of continuing inside, as might have been expected.
“If I had space I would like to give an abstract of the whole book,” Roosevelt wrote in a somewhat hasty, tacked-on conclusion. “As it is I merely advise all those who love good books, very good books, at once to get this book of Mr. Beebe’s.”
Tina Jordan is the deputy editor of the Book Review and co-author of “The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History,” which will be published on Nov. 2.