[15 June 2010]
Book reviewing is big business—at least, it used to be. Publishers clamored to get their authors reviewed in big name papers (New York Times, anyone? Chicago Tribune?). Authors crowed over a spot in the now defunct Kirkus. Yet new book review blogs pop up every day, and several niche review sites, such as Bookslut and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have a large core of dedicated readers.
Book reviews have been around as long as, well, books. Back when Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians were first scratching out letters, people talked about what they’d read recently:
—Did you read Ahmose’s scribing of the Pharoah’s proclamation?
—Ugh, it’s so wordy! Mkhai’s is much better.
Until recent years, reading, and therefore reviewing, was limited to the upper and religious classes. Amongst these folk, books were the order of the day, dissected and discussed in minute detail. By the time the literary salons of the 17th century rolled around, book reviews had grown much more formal. Authors, critics, patrons, and other literary figures debated context, allegory, intent, and more, forming the basis of modern literary criticism. Some even published pamphlets, arguably the earliest printed form of book reviews. Others wrote responses in magazines. Not all of it was pretty.
Two hundred years later, quarterly reviews appeared, heralding the arrival of the format we know and love. Until recently, many readers pored over a reviewer’s thoughts on the author’s voice, literary devices, even pronouns (yes, Cormac McCarthy, we know you think you’re a literary genius, but we’d be more inclined to agree if you actually gave your characters names). However, for the average reader, many professional reviews are inaccessible. Jenny McSmallAnimalVet doesn’t want to know if the latest James Patterson is a new look at love, latkes, and the legal system. She just wants to know if it’s worth reading (five stars on Amazon, anyone?) She can learn all about love and latkes when she gets the book.
And then the blog came along. The power of blogs lies in their everyman-ness. Blogs are like critics-in-a-box: anyone with access to a computer can sign up with WordPress, Blogger, Livejournal, even Diaryland, write up their thoughts, and hey presto! instant critic. Instead of being forced to read half a dozen review pages in search of the perfect book, readers can now pick a genre (cozy mystery, pop science, YA) or demographic (stay-at-home mom, clock maker, dalek) and find reviews written with their interests in mind. But blogs are just the top book in the stack. The real threat to professional reviewing is a lot more insidious: time.
Blogged reviews, like professional, in-paper reviews, take time to read, and time away from reading. Sure, reading a review can prevent you from buying a bad book and save a few dollars. But scrolling through a 1000+ words of in-depth review eats, at best, four minutes’ worth of time. If the review leaves you undecided, it could be another four minutes before you find a second review, and another four minutes for you to read it, bringing the total up to twelve minutes. If we consider that most novels run 250 words to a page, then you could have read about 12 pages—a short chapter—in the time it took to decide if you want to read the book. But never fear: social media is here.
Social media may seem like the buzz word of the moment, but it’s here to stay. The obvious players (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) are mostly about connecting with friends and family. But niche sites, sites devoted to reading and reviewing, are on the rise. Boasting nearly three million users, Goodreads “is the largest social network for readers in the world.” (Facebook reports around 400 million users worldwide.) Why do people use the site? According to CEO and Founder Otis Y. Chandler, it really does come down to finding what to read next. He writes,
When I want to know what books to read, I’d rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list or algorithm. So I thought I’d build a website—a website where I could see my friends’ bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books.
Other readers agree. Twitter has #amreading and #fridayreads, hashtags that encourage users to share, criticize, and recommend in easily digested 140 character sound bites. And while the publishing industry has been somewhat slow to adapt, houses are now actively seeking out blog and social media reviews, aware that the right voice on the right blog could be just as effective than a review by the once-and-now-dead king, Kirkus.
But old-fashioned book reviews are not dead yet. Well written reviews still have a lot to offer (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a reviewer). While they may not be the best source for a what-to-read-next list, they do perform a vital function: they make us think. Good reviews pick over issues, dissecting books, suggesting ideas and interpretations we mayn’t have thought of. They act as devil’s advocate, daring us to take a closer look at our likes and dislikes, encouraging us to use books as a way to learn not just about the author’s world, but ourselves.
Will professional book reviews disappear completely? I hope not.
Do you read book reviews? Do you prefer recommendations from friends? Would you miss professional reviews?