The Saturday Review of Literature

Every Friday afternoon one of my class periods at Hammond High School in Alexandria, Virginia in the late 1960’s was led single file into the school library for an hour to check out books for book reports or papers or pleasure. Hammond High is most known today as the school that merged into T.C. Williams. Remember the Titans? The T.C. Titans, the Hammond Admirals cross town football rivals.

I would consult the card catalog, browse the stacks, pick out my books. I might look down a favorite Dewey decimal aisle or two for something to read over the weekend. I did so briskly and efficiently because one of my favorite parts of the week was the librarian handing across the circulation desk the latest weekly copy of the Saturday Review of Literature and then settling into one of the vinyl cushioned midcentury modern chairs on the far wall by the windows to enjoy my favorite magazine at the time. I read it with as much glee as I had read the Weekly Reader in elementary school.

During the tumultuous 1960’s the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature often had a full page graphic of some weighty topic of the day, urban blight or the anguish of atomic war or climate change, known then as the deceptively pleasant sounding ‘green-house effect’. Sometimes the cover would have line drawings of writers and their books as was more common earlier in the magazine’s history. But I would hastily flip through the topical but existentially down bringing content of those portentous cover stories to get to the stuff about the books.

I would bring the magazine to my nose and sniff the dry pulpy pages. Then I would slowly turn each page, studying each one, looking for the most interesting reviews of new books. When I reached the end I read the classified ads and saw jobs for such positions as book editors, proofreaders, and copywriters. Then I’d turn back to read the articles and reviews I’d noted in my flip through.

Such grand questions the writers of the Review asked! Such keen insight into the minds and works of famous writers! I had been asking myself questions about the universe and human nature since I was a child swinging from the mimosa tree in our front yard. You know the kind of childish inquiries into reality a child makes–why is the sky blue, how do I know if others see the same things that I do, what if the girl I’m meant to marry one day is in France (France being the only other country I knew of at the time)? As I grew older my questions became more sophisticated such as is the universe infinite and how does linguistics shape reality and what is love and how do I get a date? It was, after all, high school.

Later I would learn that such questions are questions of science and ontology, epistemology of perception, and probability and that they have to do with chance and fate and point of view. And that all these heavy matters and more are what was being written about in the Saturday Review.

Looking over the magazine held in front of my face with both hands, I sometimes glanced down the shelves at all the books. Only a fraction of all the books in the world, even for a good high school library, only a tiny fraction. And the best of them float by the editorial staff of the Saturday Review and here they are in this slim saddle-stitched paper magazine!

Time to go. I’d close the Review and once more admire the hand drawn art on the slick cover splashed in a trendy late sixties color, mustard or avocado or orange-red. Gather my books and stride back to the circulation desk and slide the Review back to the librarian. My week was complete. One more class period, then home for the weekend with my newly checked out books. I’d have to read them quickly; the bookmobile would be coming to my neighborhood in three days on Tuesday.

The Saturday Review of Literature published from 1924 until 1982. See History of the Saturday Review of Literature for a good account of its publication.

One thought on “The Saturday Review of Literature

  1. Thanks, Bill. I remember the Review, the check out routine and the questions of youth. Memories don’t evolve, thank god. Youthful remonstrance holds us in its grasp with the firm and comforting assurance of something revealed. We have so much more to read.

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