Friday, November 02, 2007

Library Quarterly’s Book Reviews

Each issue of Library Quarterly features articles and book reviews. I have previously focused on its articles, but because I must write a book review of Ben-Ari’s Just a theory in a few weeks (2005), I will take this opportunity to study Library Quarterly and other book reviews and ponder their form, function and value as preparation for this writing assignment. In the process, I will acquaint myself with some of the new works considered worthy of a review in Library Quarterly (LQ). The
October issue features nine reviews ("Reviews," 2007), and all but one held some degree of interest for me. I neglected only the review of an English-Russian dictionary ("Reviews," 2007, p. 493).

Why are there book reviews? Who reads them? Who writes them? What level of authority must the review author possess on the subject of the book she plans to review? Is it enough that the reviewer writes well and discusses the book, noting what the author does well, what he or she does not do well, perhaps compares the book to another book (this was the form for many of the reviews in October’s LQ issue)? Do readers remember review specifics or only that “someone” reviewed the book and (probably) did not say anything bad? And how does a reviewer judge what the author does and does not do well without a certain amount of experience with books on the subject or of the type she is reviewing, and is that all it takes? What if she simply does not like the author’s style or what he has to say? What makes her opinion helpful to others? Is the book review about the book or her opinion of it, or both?

These are not just idle questions (although I shall not answer them today). Book reviews seem like a solid feature of our environment and as natural as air, but book reviewers believe the sky is falling because the sections of the nation’s newspapers that carry book reviews and other information about books are shrinking (Berger, 2001; Wasserman, 2007; Whitlock, 2007). Up until now, I have not paid much attention to book reviews, but even I have noticed that there is much concern in the popular press and in the blogosphere with this reported disappearance (Berger, 2001; Wasserman, 2007; Whitlock, 2007). In spite of the bitter tone of some of these and other news stories, book reviews are not really disappearing. Most books for sale at have book reviews associated with them. David Weinberger’s new book, Everything is miscellaneous (2007), trails a list of book reviews so long I tired of reading them( Book Page, 2007). users associate book reviews with many of the works cataloged there. Even library catalogs are beginning to feature patron-written reviews of books. And, of course, there are literary blogs.

Chris Anderson, author of The long tail (2006), told a story at the O’Reilly conference, Tools for Change, of how he and his publisher plan to take advantage of literary bloggers to market his new book, due out in 2008 (Gomez, 2007, 2nd numbered par. 4):

Give away books to “influentials.” (This worked incredibly well for The Long Tail, where Anderson convinced his publisher to print 1,000 ARCs — many more than publishers usually print — and they ended up getting about 800 copies into the hands of interested bloggers. From this, more than 600 online reviews appeared, which then linked to Amazon. Anderson said that his Amazon sales outweighed his bookstore sales, leading him and his publishes to believe that all of that online-linking led to more Internet/Amazon sales.).

Ah, but that gets to the heart of the problem. None of these alternative review venues requires that those who write reviews possess any particular expertise. Let the reader decide. We thus confront the debate between authority and expertise on the one hand and “hive mind” or “group think” or amateurism or whatever term we apply today to the age-old phenomenon of those without expertise challenging those with it. Nunberg noted that Carlyle in the nineteenth century and Johnson in the eighteenth complained about the ease with which just anyone could publish anything (1996, p. 23). The experts always have a smaller piece of the pie than they would like. But reviewers of all types will continue to review books (and Websites, and blogs, and movies, and music, and plays, and art exhibits) and we will continue to read their reviews.

Being pragmatic, I was satisfied with LQ’s reviews because they were plainly written and required no specific subject-matter expertise on my part to learn from them, yet they effectively persuaded me that I should go out and buy books. None persuaded me that I should not buy a book, which would be equally as practical a result as being persuaded to buy one; rather, most did not persuade me one way or the other. This seems about right. Eight reviews, and I will consider buying one book, maybe two. Perhaps that explains at least in part why I have not read reviews much in the past.

The review I shall recall for some time, probably until I buy the book, was Thomas Mann’s review of The Oxford guide to research (Michelle M. Kazner)("Reviews," 2007, p. 491). The title of the book reveals why this particular review appealed to me. I am desperate to figure out research. The other reviews were not less well written; they were just not about books for which I have more than passing curiosity.

Examining the form, function and value of book reviews in this essay has convinced me of more than the value of a book or two, however. The exercise has turned me into a book review reader. I have relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends about what to read, but no more. I look forward to next quarter’s LQ and am on my way to bookmark a couple of literary blogs. I will be a book review writer the week after next.

References Book Page. (2007). Sales page for: Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. Retrieved October 29, 2007, from

Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail. New York: Hyperion.

Ben-Ari, M. (2005). Just a theory. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Berger, K. (2001, July 19, 2001). The incredible vanishing book review.

Gomez, J. (2007). Free the people: Chris Anderson at O'Reilly TOC: Print is dead: Books in our digital age.

Nunberg, G. (1996). Farewell to the information age. In G. Nunberg (Ed.), The future of the book. Berkeley, CA: Brepols (Belgium) and University of California Press.

Reviews. (2007). Library Quarterly, 77(4), 477-497.

Wasserman, S. (2007). Goodbye to all that. Columbia Journalism Review.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything in miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co. LLC.

Whitlock, N. (2007). Steve Wasserman on the disappearing book review section: Quill blog.


mcquest yb said...

Why Johnson and Carlyle were unhappy?

Georgia Harper said...

Well, I'm pretty much of a cynic about this, so my answer is that Johnson and Carlyle were alarmed that just anyone could do what, up to that time, only the elite could do. That seems to be the tenor of the lament, in every successive century. "Oh my, oh my! You mean just anybody will be able to [you name it]? That's just horrible. [You name it] will go to the dogs..." It can be called snobbery; elitism; cliquish-ness. It's the belief that "we" (experts in some way) are better than them (everyone else) and they are horrible to invade our domain. They'll ruin "our" thing [whatever it is].