What are book reviews for?

A number of bloggers have touched on the Washington Post apology for the Marianne Wiggins review of John Irving’s Until I Find You. (see Sarah for example).

The subject of what book reviews are for and the roll of the critic has come up here in the past, but I wanted to touch on something Jack Shafer at Slate mentions while arguing for biased reviewers. Like Shafer I am not that worried about personal bias as long as it is disclosed, but this sentence struck me as odd:

The point of a book review isn’t to review worthy books fairly, it’s to publish good pieces.

What? Is that true? I guess we could all argue about what constitutes “worthy” books, but in many ways what Shafer discards is exactly how I approach reviewing. I can see how magazines and even blogs see their primary roll as entertainment and a show case for good and interesting writing, but aren’t book sections in the newspaper in some important way there to help book buyers and readers make choices? Isn’t a fair review of worthy books what these people are looking for?

(Side note: I think this is why Slate (and many bloggers) can often get on my nerves. Too many writers today seek to be clever and entertaining and leave out substance in the process.)

Perhaps boring writing is a hazard, but I am not ready to throw out a “fair” reading of “worthy” books. Writing short, stylish, and illuminating reviews of important books isn’t easy but it is needed; now more than ever given the tidal wave of books being published. If I can contribute in some small way to that end I will consider this blog a success.

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).

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