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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The science of book reviewing

What is expected of a book reviewer?

Recently, I read an article by the editor of a books reviews magazine. What startled me is that she was insistent that a good (as in thoughtfully critical) review should be 1200 words long.

While I have written both long and short reviews, I much prefer a book review of less than 600 words. A short review fits nicely into a blog post (preferably after publication in a regular magazine or newspaper). It also caters nicely to the fragile attention span of most magazine and newspaper readers.

Having to confine oneself to three or four paragraphs disciplines the mind most wonderfully. Instead of rambling, the review has to be snappy and concise. This has all kinds of advantages. The reader (not to mention the author of the book being reviewed) comes away with a very clear idea of what the reviewer liked, or did not.

Most importantly of all, it demands that the review must be well written – there’s no room to get away with meandering sentences and qualified thoughts.

With these thoughts in mind, it was interesting to read Isaac Asimov’s views of reviewers. (Number six is so revealing of the author – who started the essay by saying he hated book reviews – that I have taken the liberty of quoting it in full.)

1. “A reviewer must read a book carefully ... even if it seems to be very bad ...”

2. “A reviewer must read with attention, marking passages, perhaps, taking notes, perhaps...”

3. “A reviewer must read with detachment ...”

4. “A reviewer must not only be a person of literary judgement, but he must have a wide knowledge of the field ...”

5. “A reviewer must be a competent writer himself ...”

6. “Finally – and this is the point where even the cleverst reviewer (perhaps especially the cleverest reviewer) can come a cropper – the review must not be a showcase for the reviewer himself. The purpose of the review is not to demonstrate the superior erudition of the reviewer or to make it seem that the reviewer, if he but took the trouble, could write the book better than the author did. (Why the devil doesn’t he do it, then?) Nor must it seem to be a hatchet job in which the reviewer is carrying out some private vengeance. (This may not be so, you understand, but it mustn’t even seem to be so.)”

(From Gold, by Isaac Asimov, HarperCollins, 1996)

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