I have been working on a review of Teju Cole’s Open City for about four months, which is about three decades in internet years. Several factors are at play here: I have been extraordinarily busy (who isn’t); the book is difficult to write about (all the best ones are); and this will be/would have been the first long-form review here on Book Riot, so I wanted it to be great, or at least whatever portion of great I can offer.
I just haven’t been able to get the horse into the stable. I have a few thousand words, some of which I think are pretty smart, and a solid offering of evidence from the book and even a couple of incisive readings. But what I don’t have is a great review because I don’t know what a great book review is.
Now I know what a professional review is and I know what rave is and I know what a good recommendation is and I know what a good scholarly review is. I also know what a mean, but entertaining, review is and what a useful Goodreads review is and what a good pull-quote in the last paragraph is. I know to watch for Kakutani’s limn and Wood’s reference to 19th-century doorstoppers and Bloom’s anxiety of influence and Ron Charles’ bacon.
I have even been in the habit recently of reading a bunch of reviews about the same book and trying to measure critical reception. And let me tell you this: on the whole, mainstream book-reviewing is pretty uninspired. Oh they are careful and competent and tell you what the book is about and its major strengths and major weaknesses, but read like Consumer Reports. Blog and social media reviews, on the other hand, certainly don’t want for passion, but tend to express only the reader’s individual reaction.
Both operate, I think, from a central assumption: that the reader of the review is trying to decide whether or not to read the book. As a result, a good outcome of most book reviews is that a reader either is excited about or discouraged from reading the book. The journalistic book review will try to do this with the appearance of objectivity and the consumer review will try do it with radical subjectivity. And, much of the time, they work.
But is that what we want from book reviewing? For my part, I have plenty of ideas for what to read. What I don’t have are ways to understand, think about, challenge, discuss, and build on what I read.
Or, let me put it another way: when was the last time you recommended a book review? What would a book review need to do for you to be excited about it to the point that you would tell someone else to read it?
That’s what I want to read and that’s what I want to write: a review of a book that makes you want to tell other people about it. I want to read book reviews that make we want to read the book not because how great the review said it was, but because of how great the review was.
If I had a clear sense of what this could be, I would have written my review of Open City already. What I have instead are some notes on what such a review might be like:
- the review would get out of the “read this/don’t read this” trap
- the review would be about a book but also about the ideas, designs, and goals of the book
- the review itself would be entertaining and informative
- people who have not read the book, who have read the book, who will never read the book
would get something out of it
- the review would make some who have read it anxious to pick it up again and those who are
going to read it read it more carefully and interestedly than they would have
- those who will never read it will always mean to read it
- the review wouldn’t be afraid of making anyone upset or of leaving something out
- the review, in some small way, would make me a better reader
- the reviewer would not require that their reading be the only or best reading, only their best
- the review would invite, even require, readers to respond, even if only to themselves
- the review would be honest and generous, to both author and reader
- the reviewer would remember that there is no one way to write a book
- the reviewer would rather throw out the review than insult an author or belittle readers
- all genres can provide books capable of inspiring great reviews
- a great review must assume that readers are reading openly and generously themselves
For me, this is a start and a necessary one. The changes happening now in the reading world offer reviewing and writing about books an unprecedented chance to be an integral part of readers’ lives. As the volume of available titles increases and the influence publishers have of highlighting specific titles wanes, it could well be that those who write about books the best will shape what is read. What passes for writing about books now isn’t going to do it, but there’s some other way out there, I know there is.
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