Title: New York Times Book Review Archive
Publisher: The New York Times
Cost: Free (for reviews from the past 10 years), registration required Tested: April 16-19, 2005
There are many special publications dedicated to book reviews, such as the New York Review of Books, Kirkus and Publishers' Weekly, but access to their digital versions require a commitment in the form of a subscription. The London Review of Books has a significant number of free full-text reviews — usually two or three per issue from late September 2000 onward. There are widely circulating newspapers with substantial book review sections, such as the LA Times and the Atlantic Monthly, with pay-per-view charges ranging between $3.00 to $6.00 per review. Many newspapers and magazines have free reviews, but they are few and far between and it's unpredictable as to which ones will be offered for free. The BookWorld Section of the Washington Post offers its reviews for free, but its free collection, including the Book Reports column, is relatively small with about 2,200 reviews. It deserves credit for the free First Chapters. The only free collection in the vicinity of the New York Times Book Review Archive is the one of the San Francisco Chronicle, which has about 900 reviews for every year from 1995 onward (except for 1996, which has less than 400 reviews). It has no free chapter samples and the book section itself is modest compared to that of the New York Times or the Washington Post.
The most important trait of a book review archive is, of course, the respect earned by its reviews. In that regard, The New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) is in its own league. It is quite telling that it is not merely a part of the Sunday edition, but is also available as a standalone publication. It is also very telling that a two-volume collection of reviews from 2000 sold for $395.00 at Amazon. It is not exactly a bestseller at this steep price, but the price sends a message loud and clear. It was planned as a yearly publication, but at this price it may not be a good idea. (For a reality check, used copies are available from $65.00).
Many of its possible competitors were gleeful when the NYTBR's long-time editor left the company and the paper planned to shift its focus from fiction to non-fiction. For a moment I thought I was reading a piece from the National Enquirer when I read the title:"Top editor escapes from New York Times' Book review section, make over (maybe extreme) to follow." I realize that it was from the San Francisco Chronicle, which had much more serious problems with its book review section. It makes the column more bizarre that it is from a staff writer of the Chronicle whose then-new boss ditched the book review section a few years before. Luckily, that "Neroic" action was reversible and the book reviews returned.
Schadenfreude may be therapeutic for permanent envy disorder, but the fact remains that NYTBR has been and will likely remain the kingmaker in the publishing world.
The review archive is part of the Books section that also includes essays, such as the one by Salman Rushdie with very interesting recollections of his attendance at the PEN congress in New York 20 years ago. There are also the all-important bestseller lists — the top 25 in fiction, non-fiction, advice and children's book by hardcover and paperback, respectively. In addition, there are editorials, headlines and feature articles about authors and books with rich biographical details and informative background, such as the ones about Hunter S. Thompson and H.P. Lovecraft in the issue at the time of this review.
There are more than 16,000 full-text reviews in the free subset of the NYBTR archive from 1996 onward. (It seems to be more like 1997 onward, but in the search pull-down menu the first year is 1996). The rich collection is very well complemented by sumptuous first chapters from hundreds of books, and these are also free.
The reviews are substantial, informative and, well, critical, such as the one about Jared Diamond's best-selling "Collapse", which runs more than 1,000 words. Often there are more than one review of the same book and if you search for reviews, you will find not only the reviews from the Book Review Desk, but also from the Arts & Cultural Desk, and sometimes form the Metro Desk. Often this generosity backfires, as we will see next.
The software makes the site very easy to navigate and the browsing options are exceptionally good. This is very important for users who can browse the site, looking up best sellers in the non-fiction category then sample the list of first chapters, which are arranged alphabetically by authors and peek into Gladwell's Blink — just as they would probably do in a brick and mortar bookstore but without the crowd.
The weak point of the software is searching. The puny search cell is almost off the screen, but it allows you to enter words or phrases that are searched in the full-text. This yields an overwhelming number of totally irrelevant results, because if the search term occurs anywhere in any of the materials in the book section a result is returned. If you don't remember the author of a book, but only one or more words from the title, you may have a hard time finding a review. Using the simple search cell will retrieve 407 items from the book section for the query Aftermath. The query Holy War retrieves 5,778 "hits". The query "Holy War" in quotes limits the results to 30, but the first review of the book appears only as the 7th item in spite of choosing the closest match option for ranking the result.
Isn't there an advanced mode? There is, but it is for the entire New York Times archive from 1996 onward. You must use a checkbox to limit the search to the Books section and choose one of the field indexes, unless you want to search the full article index, which can be overwhelming, especially as the words matching the query terms are not highlighted.
The field indexes have names borrowed from newspaper lingo. Byline is the writer's name, that is the writer of the article, not the author of the book. Headline is the equivalent of title, but again, the title of the review, not of the book. "Holy War" yielded no result when the search was restricted to the header field, for example. Your best choice is to choose the summary index, hoping that the book's title will appear in the abstract. Indeed, it was the 6th item on the list of 12 results for the Aftermath query.
Your preferences are not remembered, so when you want to refine the query, you must choose the summary index in the pull-down menu and mark the checkbox for Books to limit the search to a reasonable set. It would be much better to have a small template with cells for title and author of the book and a checkbox for exact phrase searching. The search initiated from the Books section/pages should be implicitly limited to books.
In spite of the search inconveniences, NYTBR is a very good resource. The metadata are available for making author and title special indexes from the data elements of book reviews. Such enhancements would grace the archive.