Thoughts on amateur book reviewing

Recently I have been thinking about what it means to review books in a format such as this. I am not a professional book reviewer by any means but I am cognizant of the pressures such a job entails. For one, reading a book for a review is a different undertaking than simply reading it for enjoyment. Another issue is what to do with books you don’t like? Reactions vary: some simply ignore them, others feel free to savage a book in print or pixels, while some try to find a balance.

I feel a responsibility to offer my opinions on books that have been sent to me. After all, why would people continue to send me books if I failed to review them? The point of sending someone a book is to get feedback, right? But as anyone who has tried his hand at book reviewing will tell you, sometimes you just aren’t sure what to say. You finish the book but you just can’t seem to find a hook on which to hang a coherent review. It may be it just didn’t strike you one way or the other or maybe you just can’t bring your thoughts together to make a point. Regardless, you don’t feel you have something to say.

Or maybe you read it and hated it. Part of you would love to write a savage review that cuts the work to pieces. There is a certain satisfaction in really laying into a work and baring its faults to the bone (ignoring any strengths as distractions). But the pleasure this might give you, and the reader, is balanced by the realization that the person who sent you the book is unlikely to fully appreciate why you went nuclear; especially if that person was a friend or the the actual author.

If, as a professional journalist, you have been assigned to review the book you must overcome these hurdles if you want to get paid. And there is usually more distance between you and the author in this setting. Bloggers can simply not write anything if the mood doesn’t strike, but if someone sent you the book expecting a review, you have the dilemma of not wanting to ignore it and of not wanting to say something bad. This can be awkward for amateurs not used to getting free books or interacting with authors/publishers; or even dealing with books written by friends or acquaintances.

These emotions are natural and good – you should feel reluctant to hurt people’s feelings – but here is the bald fact, if you are to be a writer you must learn to overcome these hurdles and write honestly about books regardless of the relationship. To do otherwise is to undermine your integrity and the process. If you slant your writing to reward someone then you move into advertising and marketing not journalism.

Book reviews should be about the book not about your feelings or the author’s/publisher’s/your friend’s feelings. The reader assumes you are being honest about the content and any move to slant that content undermines the value of the review. This doesn’t mean that you should give in to the temptation to savage a book for the simple joy of the emotional and intellectual release that can involve. Nor does that mean you won’t have subjective reactions. But is should mean that you seek to communicate honestly and clearly not hide motivations or emotions. When I review books, I at least try to understand where the author was coming from and communicate the pluses and minuses as I see them. Passionate dislike can prevent clarity as much as passionate approval.

In some forums, book reviews are often a jumping off point for a larger discussion on the issues involved; book review as essay. In these essays the review is less an assessment of the book than a discussion of where the book stands in relationship to a particular issue or literature. Even so, I think reviews should seek to give an assessment of the book; to give the reader an idea of what the book is about and whether it succeeds in what it set out to do. The reader usually wants to know should I buy/read it, is it the type of book I would enjoy, how good is it? Or if the reader has already read the book in question, they might want to compare their reaction to yours: did you get the same things out of it, did that bother you too, or did I miss something? An honest assessment, even if largely negative, provides the reader with useful information.

One of the reasons I started this site was to work on the skills involved in this process. To learn what it mean to be a writer, to become both a better reader and a better writer. I want to be able to not only provide the reader with useful information but to do it with style and insight. If you can inform and entertain/enlighten, that is worth something IMHO.

These are the sort of things that are bouncing around in my head as I contemplate writing book reviews. I hope that it gives you a better understanding of what I am up to around here.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).