I promised to discuss three nonstandard forms of book reviewing. Here goes.
Plundering This sort of review simply offers to the reader whatever the reviewer found valuable in the book. The reviewer doesn’t attempt to present the book according to the author’s agenda or the book’s own shape. This exercise is simply a report on the reviewer’s own scouting expedition to find good stuff. Such a review nicely belongs on an bookseller’s or a GoodReads page as an invitation to readers to find riches for themselves.
The key qualities of such review, therefore, are organization and simplicity. Don’t just dump your treasures in a heap on the table in front of your bewildered (and soon-to-depart) reader. Sort them out in categories, or perhaps a narrative, and specify precisely what you found profitable from the book—normally with plenty of quotations. “Ah,” you want your reader to say, “what a trove of useful delights are here! Forsooth, I must myself undertake an expedition into this rewarding territory.”
You know, that is, that you have succeeded if your review prompts a “forsooth.”
Boosting Boosting is by far the most pleasant form of review to write. The happiness of sharing goodness with readers is amplified by the thrill of a sacred quest to raise the profile of a book you fear will be (or know to be) unjustly neglected.
The key concern here is credibility. Do not overpraise the book, overusing superlatives and overpromising results on its behalf. “This is the best book ever written on ___” is a risky claim. Do you really know that, and will your reader look at your credentials and believe that you know that? “This book will make you love God better, treat your spouse properly, raise your kids infallibly, dazzle your friends, confound your enemies, and secure your retirement.” Now I, as your reader, am not thinking about the quality of the book: I’m thinking about your intellectual acuity, if not your mental health.
Do not, also, commend the book too widely: “Everyone who cares about the life of the mind ought to read this book” or “Every thinking person on the planet would profit from this book,” let alone “If you call yourself a Christian, you simply must read this book or risk damnation.” Even if you feel that the book deserves such global notice, aim your energy at the main target audience(s) and let others get on the bandwagon on their own.
In short, stay within yourself, don’t hyperventilate, but instead firmly and positively lay out a case why this book is so superb and how it is. Provide examples to make its qualities vivid. And include, if you possibly can, a qualifier or two to demonstrate that you’re not simply a fan(atic) but that your enthusiasm comes from a critical appreciation.
Finally, craft your own prose: as the ambassador, so our impression of the country. A roughly written review is no commendation of a subtle work. “Best durned phenomenonemology I done red in a long time” will amuse, but not convince.
Please write these positive reviews! There are so very many books being published nowadays that the really good ones have trouble getting properly noticed amid the noise. Don’t assume that it’s just obvious to everyone else what the superior choices are. Don’t assume that the book’s own qualities or the prestige of the publisher or recommenders will suffice. Tell people about books you love. You serve everyone well, and you improve the world thereby.
Demolishing I said that boosting was the most pleasant form of reviewing. But a good spanking of a misbehaving author and a vigorous disemboweling of an awful book can provide their own jouissance as well.
Spiritual peril lurks in the bushes, to be sure. Am I pounding this book just because it annoys me? Am I determined to flay this author simply on the grounds that he embarrasses my position, insults my tribe, or disturbs my settled opinions? Am I, in short, taking some sort of vengeance? We are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, always. Vengeance is not ours, says the Lord.
Loving our neighbours, however, can mean rebuking authors, editors and publishers for shoddy or mischievous work. It can also mean warning the innocent away from peril, whether truly harmful ideas or just a cleverly promoted waste of time. Usually, to be sure, our response to a bad book should be like our encounters with other social awkwardnesses: Civilized people just look away and pretend that it never happened. But if a book is bad and it seems that at least some people within your sphere of influence would do well to be warned of it, then do them that kindness and sound the alarm.
In such cases, then, one must be scrupulous. Criticisms must be documented. Allowances must be made. Benefits of the doubt must be granted. You must not be unfair to the book or its author.
Nor can you allow your case to be weakened by indulging in an overheated expression or an ungrounded accusation. Remember: when we like things, we concentrate on their best qualities. When we dislike them, we focus on their worst. Be sure that those who disagree with your critique will train their sights on your weakest arguments and ignore your strongest. Don’t give them an excuse to dodge your main objections.
As the wise ones at SCTV used to advise, if you’re going to go after something bad, “blow it up real good.”
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So, friends, do contribute to the discussion of books in the manner and via the media that seem appropriate. Now you now all you need to know about reviewing—
—except why I almost entirely stopped reviewing books almost twenty years ago, having published more than fifty reviews in my first ten years of writing. That final little bit of counsel I’ll save for my last post on this subject, coming soon.