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Books

Getting Inside the Book Review: How They Work & Why We Read Them

We've all done it -- bought a book based on a good review, passed over another because of a bad review. But why do reviews affect us? And how do they do it?

Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote book reviews. The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review -- whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.

Recently I wrote about the Internet killing professional book reviews, ending with my hope that pro reviews stick around. In my book (pun gleefully intended), the difference between a pro reviewer and a casual reviewer (“amateur” is unfair -- how can you be an amateur at deciding if you like/love/hate a book?) is the amount of time spent thinking about the volume in question.

Casual reviewers read a book, write up a hundred words in the space of half an hour, and move on. Pro reviewers make notes, flag pages, talk to authors, find connections, and consider the bigger picture (how the book fits into a certain genre, if it makes any particular leaps or bounds etc.). Both kinds of review are valuable -- few people have time to read a pro review every time they’re on the lookout for something new to read, and short, casual reviews are handy for readers trying to avoid spoilers.

But how does a book review work? What is it that makes a book review useful? Why care what reviewers think? Who cares what reviewers think?

Getting Inside the Reader’s Head

Much like a good story, reviews need a strong hook, clear voice, pacing, and balance. Longer reviews often achieve this by tying the narrative to a personal story, giving the reader something to hold onto. Although this may seem slightly narcissistic (there’s something slightly narcissistic about all writing, I suppose), it’s actually a very useful way for the reviewer to get inside the reader’s head. Let’s say I’m writing a review about one of Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books (I'm a young adult writer, so I think mostly in terms of YA). Since they’re an old-world fantasy setting with herb lore, metal-working etc., I might include a snippet about my experience with botany and herbalism:

Back when I was studying botany at university, I took a particular interest in medicinal herbs. Most of my professors looked down on herbalism, and, by extension, herbalists -- genetic engineering and the Flavr Savr tomato were the order of the day. Years later, when I befriended herbalists of both the crunchy and non-crunchy variety, my professors’ reluctance to talk about herbs beyond photosynthesis and the CAM cycle became clear. But Pierce’s treatment of herbalism should irritate few -- her descriptions are akin to science, her characters carefully harvesting, testing, journaling, and distilling in a manner familiar to anyone who’s ever studied the scientific process.

The personal anecdote gives the reader a chance to consider my opinion, and compare or contrast theirs. Someone interested in homeopathy might find my views too different to theirs to give my thoughts any weight. Similarly, a biology major might be more likely to pick up the book because my thoughts on herbalism run parallel to theirs, suggesting similar tastes.

Trends

Although anyone can read a book review, they’re of particular use to writers, agents, editors and anyone in the story-making industry (and yes, “stories” includes non-fiction). Reviews generally cover books that stand out in some way. Get enough of these in a similar style (think wizard-vampire-dystopia) and we have a trend. Keeping tabs on the stand out books can yield valuable market information, helping book folks keep on what’s hot, and help them make predictions about what will be hot.

Interestingly, casual blog reviews may give a better sense of trends, since important “lit” books are not always crowd pleasers (Annie Proulx and Margaret Atwood come to mind). In terms of straight out trend analysis, numbers are more important than an in-depth review -- even without tallying the positives and negatives (there’s no such thing as bad press).

Some pro reviewers, though, include trend analysis -- recent books in the genre, what they contribute to said genre -- in their work. If you’re in the story-making industry, these reviews are definitely worth the time. A lot of books cross a reviewer’s desk, and pros spend a lot of time doing lit analysis, fashioning general opinion and careful, critical reading into an easy-to-read trend report.

Vindication

Writing is a tad narcissistic, though reading, particularly literary reading, may be more so. We humans love to hear “you’re right”. Most of us love to say “I told you so”. Book reviews give us the opportunity to say both at once. I’ve been known to shout “Exactly, that book sucked!” while reading at my local coffee shop. I’ve also used positive reviews to convince my husband to read something I loved. And while this may be the pettiest reason to read a book review, it’s arguably very common.

They Make Us Think

I often read reviews after I’ve read the book. I know it seems backward, but reviews often bring up a lot of issues that color my experience with a story, and that make it hard to concentrate on reading. Picking one up after the fact gives me a chance to sort out my own impressions of the book, then dig into them, exploring and dissecting my thoughts about the author’s story, style, etc. Reading this way encourages critical thinking, a useful tool for, well, everyone. Good book reviews are challenging, forcing readers to consider new angles and broaden their horizons.

Do you read reviews before or after the book? Do they influence you? Have you used them to keep track of trends?

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