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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

On Book Reviewing: Judging Properly

My last post outlined the elements of a good, generic book review. Here are a few extra considerations regarding such a review.

First, praise and blame. Both. Not one or the other. Both. (We’ll get to one-sided reviewing later when I turn to “boosting” and “destroying.”) Paul Tillich and I don’t agree on much, but we do agree on his aphorism that “In every book, you should be able to write at least one ‘Yes’ and one ‘No’ in the margin.”

(Unless it’s a borrowed book. Then don’t write in it at all. Ever. It’s not helpful: it’s vandalism. Don’t.)

Your praise and blame will be more credible if you have taken the trouble to indicate your balanced judgment. And no clever sarcasm in lieu of genuine approval: “This book shares many qualities with the finest literature: front cover, back cover, pages….” Again, not in this kind of review, although scathing denunciation has its place…in another sort of review.

So consider what merits the volume has and set them out clearly and proportionately. Do the same with the demerits. Then conclude with a summation.

In short: (+), (-), (=).

Second, give evidences and examples. If the book is badly written, say not only that it is, but how it is (strange vocabulary? untranslated languages? odd syntax? frequent digressions? excessive use of interrogative phrases?) and give evidence by way of examples. If the book constantly delights you with its insights, provide one or two for your reader. If the book fails to cover its subject, specify what it is lacking.

Generalizations unaccompanied by specifications are boring and vague.

Just like the previous sentence is.

In fact, in discursive writing as a rule one ought to oscillate between the general and the particular. My editors have pounded away at me for that over the years, and I in turn have dutifully pounded away at my own authors. This problem increases, alas, with level of education, since it seems more “grown-up” to blather on in gaseous abstractions while your reader’s eyes glaze over and drool begins to drip, drip, drip from his or her gaping mouth. Not pretty. Wake things up by actually pointing to an instance of what the heck you’re talking about.

Particulars also vindicate your judgments:”This book fails on many levels. Its prose is bad, its logic poor, its examples few, and its grounds scanty.” O-o-o-kay, but can you show us these faults as well as tell us about them? Or do we just have your (not terribly authoritative) word to go on?

Finally, it’s only fair to the author, too. If you’re going to praise someone’s work, how wonderful to have its specific qualities pointed out for approbation! If you’re going to criticize it, have the decency to put forward some examples—and if the book is as flawed as you say, this ought to be easy to do. (And if, upon ransacking the book to find them, you cannot find them after all, you now have a salutary opportunity to revise your low estimate of the book and to realize that you overreacted to what now appears to be a minor flaw.)

Lastly, five handy criteria to judge a book in this nonfiction, discursive category:

• Correct: Are its assertions true? Are its supporting data accurate?

• Logical: Does it argue validly?

• Sufficient: Does it provide enough material to support its thesis and achieve its purpose?

• Balanced: Does it deal properly with plausible counter-arguments?

• Significant: Does it say something important to its target audience? How important, and why?

Now, then, you’re ready to review a serious work of nonfiction.

Except for mine. Reviews of my books should always start like this: “My entire life has been irrevocably changed for the better since I read…” and so on, in a similar vein, to the end.

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