Previously in this space I talked about what I liked from my reading in 2012 so far. In that discussion I mentioned a book that I said wasn’t the best written history ever, but that I liked because the content was interesting. This got me thinking about negative reviews. I think I usually mention negative things here if they come up, but I know I’ve chosen not to talk about a particular book or author because I don’t have much nice to say. One of my AMom’s constant reminders to my RABro and I was “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So, at times, I’ve chosen not to say anything at all.
I’ve noticed a couple of discussions about negative reviews online lately, one of them at Guardian Books. To sum up these discussions, people decried the demise of well-written and insightful book reviews. I know I find most book reviews are not very interesting. There are some well-written reviews that thoughtfully engage the material in the book under consideration. These, I find, are few and far between. Online reviews tend to be either “Oh Wow, this book is totally awesome and you should, like, totally read it now!!” or “This book really sucked and I can’t believe that trees died so it could be printed.” I’ve read some books based on “Oh Wow” recommendations and then wondered if the person recommending the book and I had actually read the same book. On the other hand, I’ve read and enjoyed books that people thought killed trees to no good purpose. What to make of this? Are book reviews just useless opinions spouted by others? No, I don’t think so. But how does one spot a good review, a review that goes beyond an opinion and provides thoughtful engagement with the book?
It helps if you’ve read the book. This means that a good review doesn’t always help you find your next good read, it may help you appreciate a past good read. Or it might help you understand why you didn’t like that book everyone raved about. A good book review is a piece of literary criticism. A good review uses literary criteria to evaluate a piece of writing. It may indeed express an opinion or three, but in a good review the opinions are reasoned, thoughtful positions, not the effect of bad temper or friendship with the author. It seems that a well-written review might take some time. I often find that my initial thoughts on reading a book (the thoughts I write down in The List) are not the long-term thoughts or impressions I carry with me of the book. I think my position on a book settles over time. A book may improve on reflection, or it may fade away. Or I may figure out what bugged me about it. It takes time to think through any interesting piece of writing. I wonder if we’d have better-written reviews if the time-factor was figured in?