With ever-increasing numbers of consumers embracing digital books downloaded to e-readers, I will go on record as being an unabashed fan of old school coffee table books. I’m talking about those thick, oversized hardcover volumes that weigh a ton and don’t fit very well on a bookshelf. The coffee table is just about the only place suitable for displaying them. Every guest who visits just can’t help but snatch it up and leaf through it. Richard Schickel’s Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective, new from Sterling Publishing, is one of those books.
What makes A Retrospective so irresistible is that Schickel’s text is just as important as the vast array of photographs that illustrate Steven Spielberg’s career. Yes, it’s fun just flipping through it, taking in the images representing every Spielberg film from Duel (1971) to War Horse (2011). But the 79-year-old Schickel, a highly respected film critic who spent decades reviewing films for Life and Time, has ensured his book goes well beyond the sort of picture-book mentality of more superficial coffee table books. Devoting a chapter to each of Spielberg’s 27 directorial outings, Schickel clearly wasn’t interested in penning a fanboy’s love letter. His thoughtful examinations are, above all, balanced. He doesn’t proclaim 1941 (1979) or Minority Report (2002) masterpieces, but he manages to find something redeeming even in Spielberg’s most minor films.
In his author’s note that opens the book, Schickel explains that every Spielberg quote included in the book comes from interviews he personally conducted with the director since 2005. In other words, these often candid and revealing statements are unique to A Restrospective. There are sources listed in the back, but they’re for non-Spielberg quotations. Schickel’s personal familiarity with his subject makes his book far more valuable than any similar retrospective by an author or editor who didn’t have such direct access. Spielberg contributes a foreword in which he admits that this is the very first time he’s cooperated in a book about himself. It’s because of his respect for—and friendship with—the author that he agreed to do so in this case.
Bear in mind, Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective is not a biography. Though there is an opening chapter dealing with Spielberg’s formative years, the book is equal parts critical appreciation and visual retrospective. The text is kept direct and to-the-point, never expanding into the kind of scholarly dissertation of which Schickel is certainly capable. It makes for breezy, casual reading—exactly the way a classic coffee table book should be. Even for those who aren’t Spielberg diehards, A Retrospective should prove interesting and entertaining.