Blogs, books, and reviews

What seems like billions of pixels have been spilled to debate the relative merit of, for lack of a better term, online book coverage. The battle lines seemed to have been drawn between the upstarts online and the elders of print (Despite the fact that the lines are not so clear). Various “experts” with haughty opinions have weighed in about what is or isn’t good for “literature” or “books” or “reading.” They have often leeped to the defense of so called professional, or perhaps traditional, newspaper book review sections. One organization mounted a campaign to “save” these sections (must stop using quotation marks). Which is all well and good except so many have felt the need to take snide swipes at blogs and other online sources. Uninformed, unprofessional, biased, gossipy, etc.

The online folks have risen to their own defense to a degree. Some have recognized valid criticisms others have pointed to the equally uninformed opinions of the denizens of print. Insults and barbs have been traded and emotions have run hot and cold.

This whole thing strikes me as silly. The format involved is mostly irrelevant. Does it matter whether a book review is online or in the paper? The format is simply a distribution tool. Obviously, those who make a living doing the distributing will want to think seriously about the future and debate how best to move forward. But for those of us who just enjoy books and book reviews, I fail to see how it matters. We are just looking for interesting, thoughtful, and varied discussion of books. Where and how means little in the long run.

If I want to get a sense of what a book might be like whether I go to my local newspaper, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, a local independent bookstore’s website, or a blog doesn’t really matter. What matters is if the source is one I can trust and has the information I need. Seeing as tastes and perspectives vary greatly, a reader needs to find a source that lines up with their own needs.

As anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows, I am fascinated by the “professional” mini-reviews of places like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, etc. For one, I admire the skill it takes to capture a complex book in a few sentences. Not all of these reviews do that but those that do are quite impressive. I have a hard time squeezing all my thoughts and reactions down into a finely honed paragraph. So I admire those that can do so and still effectively communicate about the novel in question.

I also find it interesting how these quick hit reviews choose what to focus on; on how they balance the positive and negative. After all these reviews aren’t really literary criticism, but aimed at giving people a good idea of what the book is like and whether it might line up with their tastes.

But I think it is a mistake to view these sources as somehow tainted with the greed and lust of consumerism; to view them as logical outgrowth of a industry that treats books like any other widget (perhaps more on the larger idea behind this criticism in another post). It seems to me that there is room for a wide variety of book discussion and a number of different ways to approach book reviews.

Let’s face it, there are simple more books being published than one can get a handle on. In the face of this information overload, I think these mini-reviews serve a purpose. They summarize the plot and give one a sense of the style and skill of the author. I think they are a useful tool in making book buying decisions. Are they the only tool? Of course not, my own judgment, advice of friends, past experiences with the author, and more impact whether I buy, or read, a book.

I am sure there are plenty of people who don’t care for these brief takes on books. I am also sure that authors are frustrated with a system that tries to capture their work in a few sentences. But so what? Surely the internet is big enough that we can let a thousand flowers bloom. Can’t we have discussions and reviews of practically any size and scope? Can’t we enjoy and use multiple tools and sources depending on our need, tastes, mood, etc.?

Sometimes I enjoy a long essay-like book review that uses a book to discuss big ideas and that has the time and space to dig deeper. Sometimes I want a short take that simple lets me know what a book is about and gives me sense of its worth. Sometimes I enjoy, or want, the opinion of experts, of people who have spent considerable time on a subject, while other times I may enjoy reading the opinions of someone who simply enjoys books. And of course, there are a great many attributes in between expert and amateur.

And I think this is the beauty of online discussion of books, you can find practically anything you want. With the risk of sounding like a raging relativist, I think we can enjoy all sorts of things without labeling one style or format good and another bad.

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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