In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

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