BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Each day, Liz Taylor, Editor of The National Book Review, finds 30 to 40 new books outside her front door. In her previous job as Literary Editor of the Chicago Tribune, sometimes that number hovered closer to 200.
Named #1 Literary Person in Chicago, Liz takes great delight in sharing those books with a host of multi-generational critics who write for the review. Edited by Taylor and Adam Cohen, her co-author of American Pharoah: Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and The Nation, the dynamic website lists the “Five Hot Books” of the week and includes videos and other reviews.
While The National Book Review uses as its logo a manual typewriter’s keyboard, the reviews found within couldn’t be more current. This week’s list includes books on the Jim Jones death cult, a thriller about a cold case, a multigenerational family drama, a memoir, and a nonfiction on healthcare as big business.
Having served on four Pulitzer Prize committees and chaired the fiction committee that selected All the Light We Cannot See for 2015, Liz shares her enthusiasm for books and their authors with the 20 critics now writing for The National Book Review.
“We have found a great group of emerging critics, and it is great to have more people involved in the conversation on books. The web offers great opportunities. It’s important for us to know the book and the reviewer and to be able to understand the ambition of the author. There are just so many books—almost too many books—you really have to be discerning.”
Growing up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Liz’s favorite destination was the public library.
“Very early on, I fell in love with biographies, and one of my favorites was Johnny Tremain, about a young boy in the American Revolution. I find libraries and librarians such a joy. In our public library, there was a contest for children to read several books and then give oral reports. Your name would then go up in the library on something that looked like the Candy Land board game. I won, and they gave me a beautiful copy of Little Women. I still remember the color portraits and the feel of the creamy paper.”
Liz has always shared her love of books with others. While at the Tribune, where she continues as Literary Editor at Large, she was known for her support of book clubs:
“The world is so noisy and crowded. It is hard to know what to read, so it is fun to be matchmaker. I don’t recommend restaurants or plays, but I do recommend books. I like to ask what the last three books they liked were and go from there.
“People have different needs, and it is good to go with your instincts. If you can, balance your reading. And it is good to have a comforting book, a nice warm book, and also a real page-turner.
“Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, recent Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Harvard Professor Matthew Desmond, who moved into a trailer Park in Milwaukee to research his book, are two I am recommending now.”
People love the recommendations that Liz gives, including reviewer Charlie Gofen:
“At the end of every year, I share a list on Facebook of my favorite fiction and nonfiction books that I read that year. One time, I got a note from Liz saying my fiction list was fine, but I really needed to kick up my nonfiction a notch. She suggested a couple of books, and they actually were better than the stuff I had been reading.
“For me, The National Book Review is kind of an extension of that guidance. I love the essays, interviews, and “Five Hot Books” weekly feature. I occasionally write reviews for Liz, but my little secret—don’t tell her—is that the entire exercise is just another way to get her to select books for me to read.”
Both Charlie and Liz’s husband, James Kaplan, are among The National Book Review’s favorite critics.
Liz likes a book she can hold, although many of her books come early, in galley format.
“Reading is such a private experience. I do so much on the computer that is work-related, I would rather have a book in hand than on an electric device.”
In 2002, she spearheaded the Tribune’s efforts to acquire the Printers Row Book Fair, now the Printers Row Lit Fest, the largest outdoor book festival in the Midwest, drawing 230 authors and speakers as well as 125,000 attendees. To be held this year June 10 and 11, it features author’s talks, panels, poetry slams, music, cooking demonstrations, and other events. Working with Chicago authors gives Taylor much pleasure.
“Scott Turow is one of Chicago’s great literary citizens. Aleksandar Hemon, a MacArthur fellow who has written beautifully about refugees, is another one of my favorite local authors.
“Authors really like getting together, and I think we do more so in Chicago than in other cities. One friend hosts a once-a-month kind of salon. Sometimes we are complainers, but authors do see each other as they are.”
In addition to the reviews she composes for The National Book Review, Liz is writing about nineteenth century women in the post-Civil War period.
“With the rapidity books coming at you, I need my own project. I will be looking at these women from the viewpoint of race, class, and experience. I like life to be exciting, not having just one dreary project. I love working with groups of interesting people and thus having multiple identities.”
A former Time magazine correspondent and visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College, her alma mater, Liz is a board member and a past president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has led teams of judges selecting the Chicago Tribune Literary Achievement Prize, the Nelson Algren Short Story Prize, the Young Adult Book Prize, and others significant awards.
Liz feels that children learn by example when it comes to reading, like so many other things.
“You can’t be judgmental, but it’s important that your children see you reading. I am a champion of librarians, and they are very overworked these days. There is not enough staff. Public libraries are now community centers, and librarians are often helping students with their homework. My son, daughter, and I would visit the wonderful library in Pilsen, where we would mix it up, playing chess and choosing books. My daughter has become a rapacious reader and teaches high school civics on Chicago’s west side.”
Whether, like Liz, you have multiple books on your doorstep, or perhaps just one, few things compare with reading a first sentence and finding yourself under an author’s spell.