Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What is a Book Review Supposed to Do?

Speaking of National Public Radio, itself just expanded its online books coverage in June. Senior supervising producer Joe Matazzoni said, “We’re here to try and point our audience to good books. Our audience identifies with our sensibility and looks to us for judgment and taste. We’re a filter.”

Traditional book critics view their job as much broader and with further reaching implications than that of a “filter.” And certainly, if the reader is looking for in-depth analysis or scholarly discussion, then this declaration by the editors of The New Republic could hold true:

"The intelligent discussion of a book has the power to change its reader’s ideas about how he votes or who he loves – to furnish nothing less than ‘a criticism of life,’ in the old but still sterling Arnoldian phrase. … When a book review is done well, it transcends leisure. It inducts its reader into the enchanted circle of those who really live by their minds. It is a small but significant aid to genuine citizenship, to meaningful living.”

However, is that what most casual readers are looking for? Is that what parents, librarians, and teachers need when trying to decide which new books should get added to their collections?

Or do they want shorter, to-the-point synopses and recommendations? (Like the ones found in such print publications as The Horn Book Magazine?)

I think the latter.

Adam Kirsch, who wrote a diatribe against blogs in The New York Sun last year, would disapprove; he claims that “… bite-sized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books.”

But for those of us who have stacks of books waiting to be read and want a quick indication of which ones will be worth our time, per people whose opinions we trust, blog reviews are perfect. As Gwenda Bond, a contributor to Guys Lit Wire, pointed out in a comment on the Read Roger blog (more about the post that triggered the comment in a day or so):

"… bloggers draw traffic largely through their personal voices and personal tastes. … I'd argue that it's _because_ of the mix of things that provide the context for a blog's reviews--things that reveal information about the blogger and their tastes and point of view--that I take blog recommendations seriously. I know a lot more about where Colleen [Mondor] or Fuse is coming from than I do about an anonymous Kirkus reviewer. (And having been an anonymous Kirkus reviewer, I say that with no hint of an insult to Kirkus.)"

Note: Fuse #8, mentioned above, became a part of School Library Journal in June 2007. In addition to several blogs, the SLJ site offers web-only reviews because, as editor Heather McCormack explains, expanding book review coverage "in print is not feasible owing to paper costs, etc. Doing so online via our weekly Xpress Reviews, however, is easy. ... I can’t supply any hard numbers, but I think it’s safe to say that even the die-hardest of print-demanding librarians are beginning to see the perks of online reviews—they’re free; they’re always there; they’re informed, impartial, and to the point (like LJ’s print sisters); and they’re going to multiply like rabbits if I have anything to say about it."

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