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Monday, July 1, 2013

Book reviews in Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are too similar

William Fields, Alabama, 1936, by Walker Evans/Library of Congress

Is it just me who found it odd that the weekend book reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post about the just published Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee and Walker Evans started with the same five words and used the same quotes?
Daniel Stashower wrote the review for the Post and Cameron McWhirter wrote for the Journal, and this is how their first sentences begin:
"In the summer of 1936..." with "the 26-year-old" Agee.

Quoting Agee, here are the (practically) identical quotes the reviewers used:
"A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; (… Post) is worthy neither of the name nor ("or" Post) of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea."

And this one, quoting Agee describing one of the farmer subjects, Frank Tingle:
"Crepe (the Journal uses a small "c") forehead, monkey eyebrows, slender nearly boneless nose, vermillion gums.  A face pleated and lined elaborately as a Japanese mask; its skin the color of corpsemeat."

It is perplexing that the same quotes appear, but maybe they are the ones on the blurb, or in the publicist's promotion which leads one (me) to wonder: Did the reviewers read the book? I haven't seen it, so maybe it's mostly photos, and there is little written content to quote. The book has 224 pages.
Whatever, the sameness is disturbing.  It's like competing dance reviewers picking out 30 seconds of a ballerina's pirouette and focusing on it.  Maybe Rupert Murdoch owns the Post, too, and Edward Snowden will reveal same.
I checked the New York Times and couldn't find a review there other than a review of how the manuscript was discovered and the process which led to the book's publication. 

Yes, according to the Post and the Journal, the book is well worth reading, and I've signed up for it at my favorite public library, Fairfax County's.

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