Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reaction to the Atlantic: Why Book Reviews Matter to Me

It's been a week since this article from the Atlantic made the rounds discussing online book reviews. I think, at this point, I agree with some of the argument there. I think that the digital age could save the book review, but only in as much as it allows the dedicated readers to find the reviewers able to speak to them.

First Predicate:
A book review should contain some analysis of what the author may have been trying to do. This might involve some plot summary and/or spoilers, but only if that furthers the examination of the book. While this doesn't necessarily require familiarity with the entire Western canon, the ability to compare the reviewed book to a similar book (thematically or structurally) would be useful.

As an alternative to the traditional book review, creative criticism is much more reader-centric. Just because I recognized the themes at work doesn't mean I enjoyed it. Hopefully, the evaluator gets to the point of identifying why the book fell flat. This is really an evaluation of my reaction as book reader, presented in a way that blurs the line between a book review and creative non-fiction.

Second Predicate:
What fills the pages at sites like Amazon and Goodreads and LibraryThing (which I use) are largely reader's evaluations. The "reviews" there rarely display the depth of either a book review or creative criticism. This is not to say that they're useless, just that they're useless to me.

I love baseball, but I hate baseball broadcasts. There's too much folksyism, too much pandering (this is especially true of national broadcasts, and triply true at playoff time). The more people the network execs hope to make like the broadcast, the less I enjoy it. Some of this rises from the fact that I am, at my core, a misanthrope (why else engage in a solipsistic activity like blogging?). But most of my resentment of national broadcasts rises from the fact that I already know a lot about baseball. The broadcasts are for the uninitiated, for the casual fan. That's not me.

There's no such thing as a casual fan of books. There are people who read genres (mystery, sci-fi, romance), and there are people who only read books that do not challenge them (if the paperback made it to the grocery store, that's one). I am not one of these readers, and I do not imagine these readers seeking out book reviews to help them sort the options for their next read.

But these people are not casual readers, any more than someone out for a jog on a Saturday afternoon is a casual jogger. Reading is an activity requiring focus and effort. It would often be easier to stop reading, just as it would be easier to stop jogging.

We (the reading community) need to stop worrying about everybody else. Yes, our community is richer when everyone finds a way to be involved, but we need to look at other successful communities for our model.

Not everyone loves the World of Warcraft video game; some prefer Halo. But the Halo community doesn't try to simplify or change its content to make it more accessible to the World of Warcraft players, nor does Warcraft try to incorporate Halo's game play. These world are engrossing because they demand immersion. If you're not a die-hard, it might not be for you.

I want to read book reviews because they help me stay abreast of important books I haven't read yet, and because they help me think anew about the books I have read.
I want to read book reviews that take the characters and the plot apart like Legos, so that I can recognize how Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are both conforming to a piece of how the world views them.
I want the book reviewer to start a discussion on what the author did well, what the author was trying to do, and what the author wasn't trying to do.

Not everyone will like that review, and not everyone can write that kind of review. That's fine. It's not snobbish to say that most of the comments and ratings at a site like Amazon are worthless to me. Reader's evaluations like that might be enlightening to someone else. Let's not try so hard to please everyone that we spoil a valuable service.

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