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Critical Mass 

A new book magazine aims to be the Cliffs Notes of reviews

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single reader in possession of a good review, must be in want of a book. With apologies to Jane Austen, I must disagree. Reviews are sometimes useful -- you'll find two immensely useful ones below, in fact -- but they're not necessarily the reason to pick up a book. I'm drawn to a new novel or collection of essays at least as much by a favorable review as by a friend's recommendation, an author name I recognize, even a handsome cover design. A quick read of a volume's first page usually tells me whether I'll enjoy the whole thing more reliably than some stranger's opinion does. Still, reviews are fun to read on their own merits -- sometimes more fun than their subjects.

Despite shrinking book review sections in newspapers around the country, information about new titles and authors isn't hard to find. Between Booknotes on TV, online reviews at, and favorites lists like the Book Sense 76, you could spend all your time reading about books rather than reading books.

Meanwhile, any reputable newsstand carries enough book-related magazines to bow the sturdiest literary shelf. As with Harry Potter's Every Flavor Beans, there's one for each taste. Beyond the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and their ilk, there are numerous publications about books and the people who write them, in particular the somewhat hokey Pages, out of San Diego (not a hotbed of literary activity), the slick Book(New York), and the arty-smarty Bookforum (also New York). Every one of these is a good read, in its own way, and each approaches the genre a bit differently.

Stepping into this fray is a new glossy published out of San Mateo -- also not a hotbed of literary activity -- that promises to pull all of these review sources together into one neat, easy-to-read package. Bookmarks wants to be "your guide to the best in books," as the cover of its preview issue says. Strangely, it just might work.

To understand Bookmarks, you need to understand its competition. Pages -- "The magazine for people who love books" -- focuses more on genres and writers than on specific books, and it doesn't run much critical commentary. John Hogan, its personable, eager editor in chief, explains that the bimonthly just hit newsstands a year ago. Even so, subscription "response has been great." But when I ask what Pages' editorial focus is, his reply -- "That's a good question" -- speaks volumes. Pages isn't quite sure what it is.

On the other end of the spectrum, the bimonthly Book knows exactly what it is, and it doesn't need some damned tag line to tell you. An editor's note explains that it's "... a magazine that covers the reading life" by "telling stories that no one else will." That vague smugness plays out on the stylish matte pages, filled with nonendemic ads (for such companies as Lexus and Bose) and East Coast-style celebrity profiles (Ethan Hawke, out with his second novel, stares from the cover of the July/August 2002 issue). Senior Editor Adam Langer calls the approach -- "like Premiere, pop culture through the portal of film" -- "staggeringly successful." If a bookstore carries only one of these magazines, it'll carry Book. A marketing deal with Barnes & Noble (which also has an interest in the magazine) doesn't hurt, either.

The covers of Bookforum tell its story: cool illustrations, stylish photos, and the tag line "the book review for art, fiction & culture." Published by the same folks who bring you Artforum, the quarterly has a funky square format and a roster of impressive critics. Its editor in chief, Andrew Hultkrans, has an irreverent yet thoughtful outlook on the business of cultural commentary. "Book is an In Style magazine for the literary world," he writes in an e-mail, "not an organ of serious criticism." Bookforum "aspires to the level of intelligence in [the New York Review of Books'] criticism, but [we] like to keep enough air in the room for humor, the occasional bizarre piece or writer, and younger voices, tastes, and ideas." It's unapologetically creative.

Bookmarks, the young local upstart, lacks some of the style of Book and the wit of Bookforum, but it has something no one else has: breadth. It polls the reviews of about 500 books from 20 sources (newspapers across the country, niche pubs like Business Week and Entertainment Weekly, and general-interest magazines), quotes from them, summarizes them, and then assigns a star rating to about 60 books per issue based on the overall impression. Slate, the online magazine, has a similar feature, called Summary Judgment, in which a writer culls quotes from various sources to give a general impression of "what critics are saying." The parallel to an online publication is not surprising, given that Bookmarks' founders, Publisher Allison Nelson and Editor Jon Phillips, come from the dot-com world; it's also an apt analogy for the bimonthly's busy, perky approach. And it seems to have hit a nerve.

The "preview" issue of Bookmarks, dated Summer 2002, hit newsstands in late June. By mid-July, Nelson and Phillips were sending out 70 to 100 copies a day -- not a huge number, but impressive for a newbie with no advertising (not even inside its own pages), no marketing, and no office (Nelson and Phillips work out of their homes and use a lot of freelancers). The problem that Bookmarks solves, as Phillips sees it, is that there are so many places to get book reviews that it's "hard to get consensus" on what to read: "It's a lot of work, even for a literature freak like me." He has "a house full of books" and reads a laundry list of magazines ("No one reads as many magazines as Jon," Nelson says) but still feels overwhelmed. Bookmarks aims to boil it all down into bite-size synopses. It's the Cliffs Notes of book reviews.

Phillips has loftier goals, too: He wants Bookmarks to appeal to nonreaders, to "get more people interested in reading." Maybe the magazine will be "a step on the way to reading -- to the library, the bookstore, the book." That's a bit of a stretch, to my mind. I'm not convinced that people who don't read books are going to pick up a magazine about books, even if it promises to make choosing titles easier. But I do think Bookmarks is on to something, as we'll see when its first official issue comes out in October.

Reviews are fun to read, but we don't always trust them. They're too subjective: Who is this person who hated Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (which, according to Bookmarks, got two stars from Brooke Allen in the Atlantic Monthly) but loved Ali Smith's Hotel World (four stars from Allen)? Bookmarks exposes that subjectivity and attempts to tame it by comparing it with the subjectivity of others. As the preview issue states on Page 3, "Applying ratings to works of art is frustratingly reductionist. It is also helpful in navigating through such a myriad of choices." Bookmarks does not seem to have its own opinion, which is unfortunate, but this may change as Nelson and Phillips become more confident. It does, however, have an angle, and that's more than can be said of most of its competitors.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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