Tuesday, September 26, 2006

book reviewing, schmook reviewing

The current issue of The Edge of the Forest took me to a discussion of book reviewing, in which several people comment suggesting that "first, do no harm" should apply to book reviewing as well as to the medical profession.

I'm flabbergasted by that as a suggested book reviewing philosophy. The idea that your first concern when approaching a book should be to spare the feelings of its author makes the whole concept of reviewing utterly ridiculous. How can you review without honesty? Whether you believe the purpose of a review is to help maximize limited resources--a library wasting money on a worthless book, I call that harm--or whether you believe the purpose is to enlighten readers, neither can be accomplished by failing to consider the material itself first.

How about this as a book reviewing philosophy: "first, tell the truth"? "The truth," about any book being, of course, quite subjective--but that's all the more reason for your truth, as a book reviewer, to come from a genuine place of passion, insight or knowledge. It is your truth... make it mean something. Make it real.

I folowed a link in that discussion to this amazing bookreview/critique of book reviewing and found this terrific insight in its comments:

"What's missing from reviews on the internet is the idea that reviews themselves are forms of creative writing- that in order to convey the heart of a book you review you need to actually write about it, and write about it like you would write a short story or a novel.... A review that is well written requires thought and work- it requires every element of writing in its purest form- transformed into a text that reflects what a book means.

We don't really want to know whether a book is good or bad when we read a review, nor do we want to know the plot or anything else, or it's failings as a work. We want to know how a book tastes, how a book feels. We want to stick our feet in and wiggle around a bit. A good review does that- it doesn't sell us a book or bores us- it gives us a little feeling for how the book works, by examining it in interesting and creative ways."

I'm sorry to read that this commentor thinks those reviews are absent on the internet, because--on a really good day--that's exactly what I try to do with my reviews. The fact that most of the time I fail has to do with my own limitations--time, energy, been doing this way too long--but also something to do with the limitation of the source material. The book that inspires a truly meaningful review is a rare and beautiful thing. (Perhaps one of the reasons that people write very scathing reviews is that it is the only way to access their passion and their creativity when faced with lackluster material to review?)

So I think of that kind of review as an ideal to aspire to, but rarely to achieve. On a day to day basis, I usually settle for telling the truth--or if you prefer, my truth. And though I am never out to hurt anyone, sometimes the truth aint pretty.