I love book reviews. That is to say, I read a great many of them, and I love the good ones. (More anon about what I mean by “good ones.”) I have long subscribed to various magazines and journals, and the “back of the book,” where books and other arts are reviewed, is usually where I turn first. I scan the weekend book sections of our leading newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post—for reviews of interest to me, and I try to keep up as well with notices elsewhere, from the New York Review of Books on the left to the Claremont Review of Books on the right. The Post’s Michael Dirda, with his eclectic tastes from the demanding to the demotic, is a kind of éminence grise in my eyes. For me, his living has been an enviable one—decades of writing about books, just as he pleases (or so it seems).
I don’t read very many reviews of new fiction, partly because I have a great deal of catching up to do on authors I know I should have read by now and haven’t. When I do read reviews of new novels—or begin to—I am usually brought up short by how dreary the books seem to be, like products of a recycling plant. The thought comes unbidden to mind: “Will anyone still read this book fifty or a hundred years hence? No? Then back to the books that already have endured.” It is possible that I am missing out on something contemporary that will have staying power—the first editions of some mid-twentieth-century novels my mother left me testify to the possibility—but the probability is remote. For fiction, new or old, I am more inclined to trust the recommendations of friends than of strangers, since it is so much more a matter of taste than is nonfiction.
But I voraciously read nonfiction reviews—where judgment matters more than taste—for two reasons. First, I want to discover new books to read—and new ones to avoid wasting my time on, as well. A well-crafted review will attract or it will repel. And it is not simply a case of being attracted by the raves and repelled by the pans. A review that does what a review should do will supply an argument about the merits of the book, and an argument stands or falls on its merits, which, if they are perspicuous enough, we can judge for ourselves. Hence a soundly constructed rave for a book may push me firmly away from any interest in reading it, and by the same token, a well-crafted attack on a book may persuade me that it is very much worth my time. We who write book reviews ourselves should bear in mind that we serve the interests of those who reject our judgments as much as those who embrace them.
The second reason I read a lot of book reviews—again, chiefly nonfiction—is to learn more about the world without reading books, which is much more time-consuming. My own interests as a reader range across politics, history, philosophy, law, religion, literature, and science, and I routinely read reviews of new books in these areas even—or especially—when I know from the start that I do not expect ever to read the book being reviewed. Here a well-written review, by a critic perhaps as competent as the author on the book’s subject matter, serves as a concise tutorial. It tells us something we didn’t know—something worth knowing—but even in the case of a book of outstanding quality, something we are content to read one or two thousand words about rather than three or four hundred pages. I am very unlikely ever to read a full-scale life of J. L. Austin, or of George Eliot, but give me a good review of a new biography of either one, and I’ll learn something worth knowing in ten minutes. Reviewers of books should consider that they are writing for these readers too.
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
I have been circling around what I mean by a good book review, so let me be more explicit. I have advised students over the years, writing book reviews for courses I’ve taught, to do four things in a review. (These tasks may overlap a bit as well.) First, they should inform the reader about the book’s subject matter and structure, with a sketch of its contents. Do not assume your reader knows much, if anything, about the matter at hand (this will especially apply to any writing one does for a general-interest publication like Public Discourse). Hence it may behoove a reviewer to supply some information from outside the book’s four corners in order to place it in context.
Second, a reviewer should fairly restate the book’s thesis and the evidence and reasoning that support that thesis—without, at least initially, any prejudicial opinion either way about the plausibility of the thesis or the quality of the argument. Hear out the author, on behalf of the reader. Third, a good review will relate the book, so far as the critic is able to do so, to the existing literature on the subject, so that its distinctive attempt at a contribution of something new is clarified.
Last of all, though it may be the largest proportion of what one writes, a review should judge the book at hand. Did it accomplish its purpose? Make a persuasive argument? Consider all relevant evidence competently? Omit or distort things that told against the author’s view? Advance our knowledge, or sow misunderstanding?
A common failing that ruins many book reviews occurs when the critic’s judgment—perhaps positive, but more often negative—crowds out the other three elements above, so that the reader cannot see what the author of the book is trying to do, and may never get a very clear idea of what he or she is saying. Authors regularly complain that reviewers wish they had written some other book altogether—perhaps one the reviewers themselves would have written. But I suspect that where there is some justice in this complaint, what has happened is that the reviewer has not given enough space to informing the reader about the book’s contents, restating its argument, and relating it to the field in which it is situated. If all one does is pan a book without first giving it a sort of due process—a presumption of soundness until proven flawed—the author will have cause to complain.
Readers can grouse for similar reasons about uninformative praise, though we can’t expect authors to complain about it. For readers, nothing ruins a book review more thoroughly than the inability to discern whether a book is worth reading (by anyone, even if one would not read it oneself, as I explained above). Criticism is a failure—whether it’s a rave, a pan, or somewhere in between—if it does not supply readers with what they need to know to form their own judgment, whether it agrees with the critic’s judgment or not. A review is not an opening-night party for a book’s author, and it is not a quarrel carried on with brass knuckles. It is an exercise in considered, contextualized judgment for the benefit of readers.
Reviewing books well is hard work. If one sets out to write an opinion essay on a topic one already knows a great deal about, it’s a task that might be knocked off in a few days, perhaps in just a few hours’ work all told. But a reviewer—need it be said?—must first read a book, perhaps a long and demanding one, with more than a casual reader’s care for absorbing what it says. Underlining, scribbling notes, investigating footnotes and sources, perhaps reading other material to situate the book properly, then organizing one’s thoughts, finally writing with a view to being just to the author, to oneself, and to the reader—all of this can occupy a reviewer intermittently for weeks, which is why writers approached for such work often decline.
In the last 35 years, I have published about fifty book reviews (counting none of these Bookshelf columns among them) in both professional and popular venues. I have tried, no doubt with imperfect success, to live up to the standards I have sketched here. Book reviews are an important part of our work here at Public Discourse, and I think we do well in matching critics to books and publishing reviews that benefit our readers and are fair to authors. If you want to try your hand at it yourself, dear reader—for PD or anyone else—I hope the reflections I’ve offered here have been helpful. In any event, the books keep coming, and I have more reviews to read.