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Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means

Source: Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Sara Holbrook, the author of books of poetry for children, teens and adults, as well as professional books for teachers, wrote a piece on this blog earlier this year that was, to say the least, jarring, if not entirely unexpected by those who have been paying attention to how poorly many standardized tests are constructed. That post, “Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems,” started this way:

When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR Test), I had a flash of panic — oh, no! Not smart enough. Such a dunce. My eyes glazed over. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin.

[Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems]

Now Holbrook is back with a piece about why she never tells a student what a poem means. Why is that a big deal? It is in direct contrast to a good deal of literature instruction today, which is designed to ensure that students take away not their own meaning but what a standardized test would consider correct.

Holbrook also visits schools and speaks at educator conferences worldwide, with her partner Michael Salinger, providing teacher and classroom workshops on writing and oral presentation skills. Her first novel, “The Enemy: Detroit 1954,” was just released.

By Sara Holbrook

Seems fitting that April is poetry month, a season brimming with blossoming possibilities and longer days. Like jolly jonquils, in April poets are released from our winter hibernation, we shed our black attire and start popping up at readings, sprouting bright colors and (presumably) speaking in stanzas. Not sure how April came to be poetry month. Maybe because at the time of its designation, April didn’t already belong to women’s history, colon cancer awareness, or toenail fungus.

Of course as most of the educated world knows, April mostly belongs to taxes and school testing. Still, poets who chew pencils and chase cursors every day all year wait for this month for a little acknowledgment. It’s not too bad of a deal, really. The five-paragraph-essay is still waiting in the wings for its month.

The poem below was not written as a poetry month challenge. I wrote it while sitting in the back of a summer poetry-writing workshop. Mostly, I was biding my time for my turn to present. The instructor began by asking us to write the words, “I remember” and write for five minutes, not letting our pen leave the page (actually a writing exercise conceived by Natalie Goldberg, I later found out). If we got stuck, we were to write, “I remember” again and keep writing.

But I’ve always been a little ornery. I began with “I don’t remember,” and went from there. The image that came to mind was of my mother and the big family secret the entire neighborhood knew. Mom drank too much and took too many pills. I don’t think she would mind my telling this story now since she was sober for the last seven years of her life, and she was really proud of that. But believe me, we had our moments over the years.

A poem is a snapshot in time. Not an entire movie. A focused moment. I do remember the time she brought me brownies as an apology, but I can’t for the life of me remember what she was apologizing for. Memory is a pegboard punched with holes. The older I get, the bigger the holes become.

Still, I remember the brownies, the hug, my forced smile.

 

Remember

 

I don’t remember the first time,

how it started

or when.

But I remember

the night you brought me brownies

and said

it would never happen again.

 

I remember,

your hair was longer then

and how your eyes swam over to mine.

I remember,

my smile stuck to my teeth.

I knew it wasn’t the last time.

 

My eyes were sealed with tears

and it was hard for them to wake,

but that didn’t seem to matter.

We hugged.

And the brownies tasted great.

©1997 sara holbrook “I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult,” Boyds Mills Press

 

Forty years after the brownies were delivered to my bedside, four or five years after the writing and publication of the poem, I was visiting a school in the rural Midwest. It was April, and in preparation for the poet/author visit, kids had been asked to respond to one of my poems with: one their own poems, a hand-drawn picture, or a paragraph. What a display!

Hundreds of responses were posted in the hallways. There was an entire wall in the foyer devoted to my poem, “The Dog Ate My Homework.” Middle-school kids love to laugh and the student poems told tall tales of dogs, goats, and chickens munching on math problems and swallowing spelling words. One, as I remember, involved no eating but did reference cat pee.

But down the hall, around the corner, out of the florescent glare of the reception area, on the tiled wall by the room where (before inclusion) they used to keep “those kids,” I found Paul’s interpretation of my poem, “Remember.” While his classmates were having fun with poetry, he was evidencing his understanding that all of life is not a sit-com.

Paul was 11 years old when he wrote this. I know. I asked. When students are 11, the topic of sex doesn’t come up in the classroom. Teachers and parents make sure of it. What Paul brought to the text of my poem is background knowledge he had acquired somewhere other than school. We can only speculate.

Paul and I are both more than 25 years older now. Still, that spring day is sealed in my memory. I visited two schools, Paul’s in the morning and then I moved on at lunch break. But I took time to make a big deal out of Paul’s response, taking it to the office to have it photocopied (era before cellphone cameras). The secretary read it and wearily sighed, “Yeah, there’s a lot of that ’round here.” I took it to the guidance office. I took it to the vice principal. I don’t know if Paul, age 11, ever got the help he needed. It haunts me.

But one thing I do know, I am not the one to tell Paul what the poem “Remember” is about. Paul knew and probably still knows what this poem means. In my mind, this is not even my poem anymore. It belongs to Paul, age 11.

Famed educator, guru, and overall smart person Louise Rosenblatt wisely distinguishes between interpreting expository writing (journalism, nonfiction) and aesthetic writing. “A novel or a poem or a play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols.” The reader creates meaning, I heard her explain in a talk she gave at the National Council of Teachers of English in November 2004 at the no-nonsense age of 100. She was peeking over the podium giving a roomful of academics what-for, explaining that the meaning of a poem floats somewhere between the page and the reader’s mind because each reader brings a unique experience to the piece.

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

As teachers and parents, our main goal is to get them to love learning, to be curious, and grow to understand the difference between fact and fiction. Writing poetry can help with this by the way, poets are into facts, and not just in April. But how can testing help with this? Geez, Louise! Proficiency test questions don’t even have to be fact-based!

One industrious Advanced Placement student wrote to walk me through two of my poems and each STAAR standardized test question, dutifully explaining how to determine which of the right answers on a multiple choice test is the most right. Clearly he has mastered the game of analyzing minutia. A smart, articulate kid; I found his dedication to compliance, well, disconcerting.

“Big can’t get you if small’s got you,” civil rights leader Rep. Elijah Cummings said recently, quoting the wisdom of his sharecropper father.

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I worry we are raising a generation of students who view success as the ability to focus on marginal minutia while (too often) missing the big ideas in a piece of writing. Worse, children are learning to disregard their own instincts, their histories, their cultural references by devoting themselves to predetermined interpretations. When we tell students what to think, we short sheet their own thought processes.

What if, in that long ago April, some test had told Paul his interpretation was wrong?

I stick to my contention that if a child reads a poem or a story about a red house, it is fair to test the kid’s reading mastery by asking, what color was that house? Once we ask, why did the author paint the house red, we’ve slid off the pedagogical sidewalk. It may be a good question to stimulate rich discussion, but the answer, particularly when it comes to poetry, is not a right or wrong equation. Deciding why the house is red is where we meet, reader and writer as the reader brings a unique experience to the interpretation. This is how we nurture thinking in students.

Besides, if the author hasn’t told us why the house is red, we just can’t know. In fact, the author’s perception of her intent in writing, of the very meaning of her own poem, may in fact change over time.

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The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor | A poem each day, plus literary and historical notes from this day in history

A poem each day, plus literary and historical notes from this day in history

Source: The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor | A poem each day, plus literary and historical notes from this day in history

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Philip Pullman unveils epic fantasy trilogy The Book of Dust | Books | The Guardian

Author’s new novel series is set in London and Oxford and overlaps with hugely popular His Dark Materials

Source: Philip Pullman unveils epic fantasy trilogy The Book of Dust | Books | The Guardian

Philip Pullman has ended years of speculation by announcing that The Book of Dust, an epic fantasy trilogy that will stand alongside his bestselling series, His Dark Materials, will be published in October around the world.

The as-yet-untitled first volume of The Book of Dust, due out on 19 October, will be set in London and Oxford, with the action running parallel to the His Dark Materials trilogy. A global bestseller since the first volume, Northern Lights, was published in 1995, Pullman’s series has sold more than 17.5m copies and been translated into 40 languages.

Pullman’s brave and outspoken heroine, Lyra Belacqua, will return in the first two volumes. Featuring two periods of her life – as a baby and 10 years after His Dark Materials ended – the series will include other characters familiar to existing readers, as well as creations such as alethiometers (a clock-like truth-telling device), daemons (animals that are physical manifestations of the human spirit) and the Magisterium, the church-like totalitarian authority that rules Lyra’s world.

The Oxford-based former teacher said he had returned to the world of Lyra because he wanted to get to the bottom of “Dust”, the mysterious and troubling substance at the centre of the original books. “Little by little, through that story the idea of what Dust was became clearer and clearer, but I always wanted to return to it and discover more,” Pullman said.

In a description that will resonate with the current political climate, he added that “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.

But David Fickling, whose firm, David Fickling Books, will publish The Book of Dust in the UK jointly with Penguin Random House children’s books, warned readers not to draw too many parallels between the new book and the current political situation in the UK or US. “I think it is a really important book for now, not in an intellectual way, but in a storytelling way,” Fickling said. He said the book would “resonate on a psychological level” and added: “Some of the best people for telling us the truth about our times are our great storytellers and Philip is one of them.”

Exact details of the plot are a closely guarded secret. However, Fickling hinted that readers would not have to wait 17 years – the gap between the last volume of His Dark Materials and the first of The Book of Dust – before the new series would conclude. The BBC reported on Wednesday that Pullman had completed the first and second volumes already, and was working on the third. Asked when the second volume would be published, Fickling replied, laughing: “You need to ask him, but readers should know they have a big treat ahead of them.”

The puzzle of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, Oxford, in her alternative universe, initiated the new trilogy. “In thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up,” Pullman said. Describing it as neither sequel nor prequel, but an “equel”, he added: “It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognise and characters they’ve met before.”

Speaking to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Pullman said the first book of the trilogy opened roughly 10 years before the action of Northern Lights, and the series “continues roughly 10 years after His Dark Materials”.

“So we see Lyra both as a baby and we see her in the second book as an adult; she’s 20 years old,” Pullman added. “There she can fully take agency of the story, so to speak.”

Dust, as described in the original series, has been equated to dark matter. It is expected that Pullman will incorporate the latest findings about the substance, which scientists say exists because of evidence of its gravitational impact on the motion of visible matter.

Though Pullman’s publisher would not confirm how this research would feature in the book, Fickling admitted that it had some influence. “He has a capacious mind and is sent nearly every scientific book before publication,” he said. “If you visit his house, you will see all these books that are way above everyone else, he doesn’t miss much that is going on.”

The quest to understand, use and destroy Dust is central to His Dark Materials. But as well as being analogous to dark matter, Pullman has said that it is a metaphor for the original story, which he based upon Milton’s Paradise Lost. In His Dark Materials, the Magisterium regards it as evidence of original sin, which must be destroyed before children emerge from puberty into adulthood when their daemons, the animal familiars that represent their spirits, take their final form.

“Dust is an analogy of consciousness, and consciousness is this extraordinary property we have as human beings,” Pullman told the Today programme. “The story I’m telling in this book is more about in terms of William Blake’s vision, his idea of a fiercely reductive way of seeing things: it’s right or wrong; it’s black or white.

“He said that was far too limiting and we should bring out truer human vision when we see things, surround them all with a sort of penumbra of imagination and memories and hopes and expectations and fears and all these things.

“It’s an attack on the reductionism, the merciless reductionism, of doctrines with a single answer.”

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, Pullman noted that the Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, had taken more flak for the magic in her books than he had for his overt criticism of organised religion. “I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got,” he told the newspaper. “Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak … Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”

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Who doesn’t read books in America? | Pew Research Center

About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year. Who, exactly, are these non-book readers?

Source: Who doesn’t read books in America? | Pew Research Center

by Andrew Perrin

About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. So who, exactly, are these non-book readers?

Several demographic traits correlate with non-book reading, Pew Research Center surveys have found. For instance, adults with a high school degree or less are about three times as likely as college graduates (40% vs. 13%) to report not reading books in any format in the past year. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey shows that these less-educated adults are also the least likely to own smartphones or tablets, two devices that have seen a substantial increase in usage for reading e-books since 2011. (College-educated adults are more likely to own these devices and use them to read e-books.)

Adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are about twice as likely as the most affluent adults to be non-book readers (33% vs. 17%). Hispanic adults are also about twice as likely as whites (40% vs. 23%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months.

Older Americans are a bit more likely than their younger counterparts not to have read a book. Some 29% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 23% of adults under 50. In addition, men are less likely than women to have read a book, as are adults in rural areas compared with those in urban areas.

The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months is largely unchanged since 2012, but is slightly higher than in 2011, when the Center first began conducting surveys of book-reading habits. That year, 19% of adults reported not reading any books.

Given the share that hasn’t read a book in the past year, it’s not surprising that 19% of U.S. adults also say they have not visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year. The same demographic traits that characterize non-book readers also often apply to those who have never been to a library. For example, men, Hispanics, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000 and those who have no more than a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school are the most likely to report they have never been to a public library.

 

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New York 2140: Kim Stanley Robinson dreams vivid about weathering climate crisis

In 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson published 2312, imagining how the world and its neighbors might look in 300 years, loosely coupled with the seminal Red Mars books, a futuristically pastoral novel abo…

by Cory Doctorow

Source: New York 2140: Kim Stanley Robinson dreams vivid about weathering climate crisis

In 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson published 2312, imagining how the world and its neighbors might look in 300 years, loosely coupled with the seminal Red Mars books, a futuristically pastoral novel about the way that technology can celebrate the glories of nature; in 2015, Robinson followed it up with Aurora, the best book I read that year, which used 2312’s futures to demolish the idea that we can treat space colonization (and other muscular technological projects) as Plan B for climate change — a belief that is very comforting to those who don’t or can’t imagine transforming capitalism into a political system that doesn’t demolish the planet. Now, with New York 2140, Robinson starts to connect the dots between these different futures with a bold, exhilarating story of life in a permanent climate crisis, where most people come together in adversity, but where a small rump of greedy, powerful people get in their way.

It’s 2140 and trillions of dollars’ worth of the world’s most valuable real estate is now submerged under fifty feet of water, resulting from two great “surges” where runaway polar melting created sudden, punctuated disasters that displaced billions of people, wiped trillions off the world’s balance sheets, and turned the great cities of the world into drowned squatter camps.

But it’s 2140, and the cities are coming back. The combination of financial speculation, desperate refugees willing to do anything to find shelter, and new technological innovations are spawning “SuperVenice”s where boats replace cars and high-rises connect to each other with fairytale skybridges, and pumped-out subway stations become underwater leisure clubs. No SuperVenice is more super than New York City, where the boats ply midtown Manhattan’s skyscrapers and everything from Chelsea down is an intertidal artificial reef where, every now and again, hundreds of squatters die as the buildings topple.

The forces of finance are deeply interested in the intertidal zones. These great cities were once the world’s ultimate luxury products and now they’re marine salvage, waiting to be dredged up from the tidal basins, dusted off and monetized. Yeah, there’s millions of inconvenient poors hanging out in them, but they’re a market failure, producing suboptimal rents on some seriously distressed assets that need a little TLC, capital infusion, and ruthless securitization to bring them back.

Robinson is a master of turning stories about zoning disputes and local politics into gripping, un-put-down-able adventure tales (his novel Pacific Edge remains the most uplifting book in my library). New York 2140 is a spectacular exemplar of the tactic: the financial shenanigans form a backdrop for submarine drone-wars, black-ops kidnappings, private security assassinations, non-state actor cyberwar and economic terrorism, buried treasure hunting, and big, muscular technologies from giant dredging barges to aerosolized diamond sprays.

But more than an adventure tale, New York 2140 is a vivid narrative about how our best natures can best natural catastrophes: how the goodwill, cooperation, and kindness of humans can overcome the wickedness, self-deception, and greed of humans.

I am increasingly certain that these stories are an urgent political project. We are all prone to the availability heuristic, in which things that are easily imagined are considered more likely than things that are hard to imagine. Since the Reagan years, our overwhelming stories about humans is our greed and selfishness (indeed, these are virtues in the Randian conception of free market utopianism), and so whenever someone says, “We will need to cooperate with each other to solve climate change,” it’s hard to imagine — but it’s easy to imagine how, after the change, we can set up brutal, Mad Max-ian strong-man societies (see, e.g., The Walking Dead) where you’re either a cannibal warlord, or your dinner.

The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.

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5 Reasons Why Your Kids Should Meet One of Their Favorite Authors | Brightly

Source: 5 Reasons Why Your Kids Should Meet One of Their Favorite Authors | Brightly

by Tom Burns

That’s an easy thing to say, isn’t it?

“Your kid should meet their favorite author!”

But it’s not always the easiest thing to do.

In fact, sometimes, it’s literally impossible to do — particularly if your child’s favorite author is E.B. White or A.A. Milne. And, if the author is still alive, sometimes geography and/or fame just makes the chances of a meet-and-greet impossible. (I recognize that the likelihood of my daughter getting to see J.K. Rowling in person is fairly low.)

That being said, there ARE so many opportunities for children to interact with authors they love. Book fairs, library events, bookstore readings — authors head out on the road to market their works more often than you might think. And, if you’re the parent of a book-loving kid, it becomes your job to become aware of those events, so your kid doesn’t find out that “OMG, my favorite author ever was at the library yesterday and we didn’t even know!”
Can it be a lot of work to find these author events? Yes. Is the experience of attending worth all that effort? YES. YES, YES, YES.

If you’re not sure that you want to brave the lines at your local bookstore to have your kid meet the creator of that new book or series they love, here are five reasons why meeting an author has the potential to be one of the coolest experiences your kid will ever have:

1. It humanizes their heroes.
Kids develop a really intimate relationship with authors they love. They see the name Rick Riordan or Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Brad Meltzer or Matt de la Peña on a book cover and, from that name alone, they know, “That book is for ME. That’s MY kind of book.” That’s a powerful connection that only gets deeper once your child has the opportunity to see the author in person.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to get to take my daughter to an event to meet Kate DiCamillo, an author she’d been calling her “favorite writer EVER” since she was six years old. I can’t describe to you what happened to my daughter’s face when Kate walked into the room. There was a flash of recognition, then disbelief, then one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.
It was like watching someone meet an old pen-pal or long-distance acquaintance for the first time. It was magical.

2. There’s nothing like hearing an author read their own work.
Often, when you’re at an author event, you get the privilege of hearing an author read their work aloud. Maybe it’s a chapter from a new book, maybe it’s a short passage from an old favorite. Regardless, there is something wonderful about hearing a writer read their own writing to a large group of children.

It really is fantastic to hear the person who created a fictional world bring it to life with their own voice. They know how to hit all the jokes just right. They bring emotion and depth to pauses you never anticipated on your own. For a kid, it’s like watching an act of creation right in front of them. It’s unbelievable.

3. It lets your kids know “I could do that TOO!”
When your kid gets to see their favorite author in the flesh for the first time, it’s a strange moment. It’s almost like seeing a fictional character brought to life.

But that’s why this is a great experience for kids — because it lets them know that authors AREN’T fictional. They’re real. They’re just like you or me and, most importantly, just like THEM. When a child realizes that an author they adore is just a normal person, it reminds them that they’re capable of creating the exact same kinds of things. They can be a writer too, just like that oddly normal person signing books at the front of the line.

4. Autographs mean something.
They do.

Your child met the person who created that book they loved, and they have PROOF. The author might’ve even written your kid’s name in the inscription as well. It might just be a signature, but it means so much to the person who gets to carry that signed copy of the book around with them for the rest of their lives.

(And, if you meet an author who is also an illustrator, sometimes they draw sketches too! My daughter still can’t get over that Lane Smith actually sketched a picture of the title character of one of her favorite books, Grandpa Green, on the title page of her copy. She will keep that book FOREVER.)

5. It gives them a more personal connection to their favorite books.
As I mentioned, these chances to meet authors aren’t always possible. Sometimes, they only happen in big cities or, sometimes, your child’s favorite writers are already dead.

But, when the opportunity arises, if your child has the chance to meet the author of a book they love, that experience burns that book into your kid’s brain for the rest of their life. The book is elevated. It’s not just a better-than-average read. It becomes a book they now have history with. It’s a book that allowed them behind the scenes. A book that let them meet its author, ask a question, maybe get an autograph.

I’m not saying that meeting an author will always be a phantasmagorical experience. Maybe your kid will be shy. Or the author will be grumpy. Or the lines will just be way too long.

But, if you’re lucky, if your kid gets to meet a person who wrote a book they loved, that book will become a part of your child’s personal history in a way that most creative works never will.

So, if you have the opportunity to take your kid to an author signing, believe me, it’s worth it.

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Changes In ‘New York Times’ Books Coverage, Explained

At a luncheon in Manhattan yesterday, ‘New York Times Book Review’ editor Pamela Paul, who oversees all books coverage at the ‘New York Times,’ laid out the newspaper’s vision for the future of its newly-unified books desk.

Source: Changes In ‘New York Times’ Books Coverage, Explained

by John Maher

At a luncheon hosted by the Publishers Advertising and Marketing Association (PAMA) at the New York Times headquarters on Wednesday, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul explained the paper’s vision for the future of its books coverage.

Paul has overseen all books coverage at the New York Times since the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, announced changes to the newspaper’s books coverage last summer. She has also previously spoken about some of the changes, including the unification of the paper’s separate books teams under one desk, and the deprioritization of reviews in favor of more custom-tailored and wide-ranging forms of coverage.

But after the Times eliminated a number of its bestsellers lists in January, many in publishing have found themselves asking questions about the paper’s coverage of books and worrying what the shift means.

“When I hear that [a media outlet is consolidating], as an outsider…my very jaundiced, skeptical take is, ‘Oh, they’re cutting back,'” Paul said. “That is actually not the case in this instance. It is the opposite.”

Paul stressed that the Times is actually expanding its books coverage, with the intent of becoming more “strategic” in how it covers particular books. Previously, the paper had three separate desks that covered books entirely independent of one another—the Business Day, which is where publishing reporter Alexandra Alter was assigned; the Daily Critics, comprised of Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, and Jennifer Senior; and the Sunday Book Review—with very little communication between teams and some duplication in what was covered. That will now change, with all books coverage falling under a single Books Desk umbrella.

In simple terms, the Times is moving from a review-oriented strategy to a strategy that aptly covers categories that are of interest to their readers but are “review-proof,” or wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a 1,200-word review in the New York Times Book Review. (Examples include, with exceptions, mysteries, parenting books, business books, or health books.)

Previously, Paul said, the Times’ books coverage consisted “85% of reviews” with the rest being “a mix of profiles, industry news, features, and bestseller lists.” This approach, she said, resulted in “a lot of duplication.” In other words, at a Times that has rapidly expanded its digital strategy, the question will no longer be, she said, “Does this book merit a review,” but rather, “Does this book merit coverage?”

To this end, Paul noted that the Times has been, and will continue, hiring new writers and editors to write about books in different ways. Those editors and writers will be focused “across all genres,” Paul said, and covering—but not reviewing—books she feels the paper did not effectively cover in the past.

While Laura Marmor was brought to the Books Desk from the NYT Styles Desk as deputy editor of news and features, the biggest recent hire at the Books Desk was of new editorial director Radhika Jones, who came from Time magazine, where she edited features including the Time 100 Most Influential People. (Before Time, Jones was at the Paris Review.) Jones will be spearheading an upcoming redesign of the New York Times Book Review, which remains “central” to the newspaper’s books-related mission. The redesign will affect both digital and print and, Paul said, in an email to PW, be unveiled sometime this summer. David Kelly remains the deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Paul also addressed concerns over the slashing of bestseller lists including mass market and comics. Regarding how the bestseller lists team compiles the lists, “their methodology has not changed,” Paul said, “and I can say that with a mix of total confidence and total ignorance.” She continued: “I will say, there does still exist that line between editors and the bestseller lists in that we don’t know their special sauce. We don’t want to know it, nor should we know it. We oversee them and they are part of our group, but we don’t interfere with that process.”

As for the reasoning behind which lists were cut, Paul said that cuts were made “strategically in a way that every book still has a chance to be on a bestseller list.” She then added: “There’s no book that doesn’t have a chance to get on there. It’s just that the competition is tougher.”

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