An experiment with books for you to read and review

July 19, 2008 

Being a book lover and a leader in academic press circles, Sandy Thatcher spotted a shortcoming in our Sunday paper and is helping to do something about it.

The result: You’re starting to see reviews of books, almost weekly on our Books page, written by local writers.

Visit today’s Sunday Life section and read Kevin Hagopian’s review of Walter Mirisch’s book, “I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History.” Hagopian teaches film history and theory and cultural studies at Penn State.

It’s the latest product of Thatcher’s “experiment,” and many will follow. In fact, Thatcher, director of Penn State University Press, reports that 40 books are in the hands of local writers for review.

You’ll read these reviews as we get them, featured on the Books page, and we thank writers who’ve stepped forward already.

Previously we were hit-and-miss with reviews with no organized system and no staffer with time to coordinate it. Thatcher stepped in and is expanding a network to match people with expertise with the book they review for us.

That’s a win-win, and it all started after an arts symposium at Penn State last October that focused on the future of arts coverage in newspapers.

Thatcher, a panelist, expressed concerns at the state of book reviewing, noting that there are long odds against getting books, particularly from the academic press, reviewed in The New York Times or other large newspapers.

I spoke at the session and explained that we depend on The Associated Press and other wire services for the reviews we publish. I invited contributors, as I often do when I visit with groups, and occasionally those talks have led to bloggers, columnists and some of the submitted news and photos that you see frequently.

Thatcher started the experiment and is now sharing it with colleagues in the hope that other book review efforts spring up across the country.

A past president of the Association of American University Presses, Thatcher talked about this effort in an address at the organization’s conference last month in Montreal and explained the outreach for writers.

“I have had very few people turn me down, mostly because of complicated schedules they have, and the reaction from those I have approached, even those who couldn’t take on the assignment now, has been uniformly positive, indeed enthusiastic,” he told the group.

Want to find a book that you read about on a Sunday? The Penn State Bookstore, at Thatcher’s urging, will display the book once the review is published.

At this point, the only downside of this venture is that books published by Penn State Press will not be re-viewed by local writers to prevent any conflict. But if another university press group decides on a review program such as this, perhaps we can run its reviews of the local books.

And what are the chances of that happening?

Thatcher is optimistic.

“We’ve all been bemoaning the decline of book reviewing in papers for years,” he said, “so people are encouraged to see someone actually doing something about it.”

Thatcher wants to expand his network of reviewers and is looking particularly for people with interest in fiction and poetry. He reports that a book on quilting is ready for review and notes that he’ll accept suggestions for books by local authors to review.

Contact Thatcher at sgt3@psu.edu if you’d like to join this network and let him know your interests.

Perhaps you’ll help make this ex-periment better for all of our readers.

As always, please contact me with concerns you have about anything in the Centre Daily Times or online at www.centredaily.com.

Executive Editor Bob Heisse can be reached at bheisse@centredaily.com or 231-4640. His blog, “Back in Happy Valley,” is on the Web site.

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