My Life, Bill Clinton's hulking, 957-page memoir, huffed into anchorage on June 22 where it was greeted by the press mob as if it were the Queen Mary II. The publicity wizards at Clinton's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had stoked interest in the admittedly newsworthy book by denying reviewers copies prior to the official June 22 release date. Also, Knopf's decision not to sell prepublication serial rights to a newsweekly or newspaper added to the mystique.
Every newspaper worth its salt published some sort of news story gleaned from the book's pages on June 23, but the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, andthe Associated Press ran full-fledged reviews that day. Newsday published its instant review on June 24. The New York Times had beaten everybody by publishing its review on June 20, with its reviewer probably getting My Life on June 18 if her source was the same as the one who provided the Times news pages with a copy.
The 24- to 48-hour turnaround of these reviews poses the question of whether a barge-size book like My Life can be read in its entirety in such short order—let alone reviewed. How long might it take to read My Life? Slate assigned one-third of My Life to three staffers for our "Juicy Bits" feature, and they recorded 27 man-hours of reading and note-taking. Surely a full-fledged review of My Life by one person would require somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 hours for reading, plus sleep breaks, and maybe another couple of hours for composition.
Are the book blitzers Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduates, vampires who never sleep, corrupt book-skimmers, or hacks? All of the blitzers who spoke about their instant reviews defended their velocity, with some saying their assignment wasn't to judge a masterpiece of literature but to assess a public figure's retelling of events with which everybody is mostly familiar.
"This wasn't really a book book," says Robert Sam Anson, who says his design was to write a "news review" of My Life for the New York Observer.
"This is a political event more than it's literature," Anson says.
Anson prepped himself for the review by talking to people who'd been read long portions of the book, which gave him a sense of what it contained before he opened it. He then logged 26 straight hours producing his review.
"Did I read the whole thing? No. Lucky for [Clinton]!" says Anson.
Media columnist Tim Rutten, who reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times, says yes, he read the entire book but adds, "Closely enough to take a short quiz? No."
Encouraged by his editors, Rutten has become the go-to guy at his newspaper for book turnarounds, writing rapid reviews of Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack and Joseph Wilson's The Politics of Truth. He pulled an all-nighter for My Life, spending about 26 hours reading and writing.