I’m happy that newspapers are cutting back on book reviews. Most of them are unnecessary and just take up space. Long ago, I stopped believing the majority of them.
No, I don’t mean every reviewer ought to be cashiered. I know a handful of book reviewers who are objective, insightful and truthful, and who can get you to run, breathlessly, to the book store and leap eagerly into bed with a book on Saturday night. (“Hands off! Can’t you see I’m reading?”) For the most part, however, I find reviewers just steal copy from the book jacket and promotional materials, glance at the first few pages of the book (maybe), turn in their column, collect a few measly shekels and move on to the next book, whoops, few bucks.
If I am tempted to buy a book based on a reviewer whom I don’t know, 99% of the time I get a second and third opinion before actually making the purchase.
Reviewers Who Delight in Maiming or Killing
When I was working at the book publishing arm of Barnes & Noble, Inc., I plucked an advance reader’s copy (ARC) from among the stacks of free ARCs tossed on a long table for us to take if we wanted them. The book was The Know It All—One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A. J. Jacobs. It’s the true story of a middle-aged man who feels he has become a dolt and forgotten everything he ever learned. So he takes it upon himself to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. Of course, as he pushes through one volume after another, his brain overflows with esoterica, which he dispenses ad nauseum at every opportunity in EVERY conversation. You can only imagine with what his wife, friends and colleagues have to contend. As Jacobs becomes the repository of the history of the world, no, the universe, he and his wife are struggling with a serious family issue that, because you grow to like him and his wife so much, makes this book much more than just a yuck a minute. (My review, thank you.)
A more honest woman would have given back the money she billed for that workday. I drove my fellow cubicle dwellers crazy with my insane laughter. I actually sent the editor an email telling him how much I enjoyed this book, and got a nice email in return.
Then a review came out in The New York Times Book Review. What a cruel, unfunny, outright nasty review. The kicker, of course, was that The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, had selected Joe Queenan, a “contemporary humorist and critic,” with an ostensibly funny (and perhaps competing) book coming out later in the year.
A. J. Jacob’s book eventually made the New York Times Best Seller List in paperback. (I note that Queenan is slurping the blood of more authors in “Why Not the Worst?” his essay about bad books that make good reading in the May 6th edition of The New York Times Book Review.) I don’t remember seeing Queenan’s book on The New York Times Best Seller List. Perhaps I missed it.
Just Because You Are John Updike Doesn’t Mean You Should Review a Book About Einstein or that I Should Buy That Book Based on Your Review.
In his review of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein, The Valiant Swabian, John Updike, of all people, wrote that after Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, “he never again made a significant contribution to the ongoing life of the physical sciences.” (The New Yorker, April 2nd, 2007.) Funny, I didn’t know John Updike was qualified to review a book about Einstein. In fact, in a letter to the editor on April 23, 2007, Paul F. Zweifel, University Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said it wasn’t so, and went on to talk about Bose-Einstein statistics and Bose-Einstein condensation. “Einstein did so much, and created so many new concepts in physics, that he easily could have been awarded seven or eight Nobel Prizes….”
Shut-up already if you don’t know what you are talking about. And don’t write reviews that are so lengthy and detailed that they synopsize the entire book, Mr. Updike. If those types of book reviews aren’t outlawed, they should be.
Anonymous Review Equals Suspect Review.
“I was told to be encouraging.” That’s what one book reviewer told me. I stumbled across another comment online in which the reviewer, who had written over 100 reviews, said that on occasion he would turn in his review only to find it had been completely rewritten from positive to negative or negative to positive when published. Spiked or rewritten reviews are all about fear of loss of advertising dollars and/or shameless cronyism, and I believe those reviews are everywhere in every media—newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, the Internet.
I want to know who the reviewer is, how much he or she is paid for a review, how often he writes reviews, and whether he is sneaking off to have mimosas at the bar at The Algonquin Hotel with his buddy, the author, or perhaps the editor. In other words, I want to know the reviewer by name so I can compliment him or her on his review or draw and quarter him, personally. No name, no accountability.
Are Book Reviews from Bloggers Bunk?
The New York Times had an article entitled “Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?” by Motoko Rich on May 2nd. The lead paragraph reported that Dan Wickett, “a former quality control manager for a car parts maker,” reviewed 95 books on his blog last year. Ninety-five!!! Is he kidding? How thorough a read did those books get? Who cares what he has to say about a book anyhow? And Bookfinds.com has such fawning reviews that I suspect they are just a means of acquiring ARC’s that they can then sell at the local bookstore.
When I read the literary bloggers, I ask myself: who do you think you are to tell me what to read? Are these self-serving, safe book reviews designed to curry favor with advertisers or have the reviewers got the guts to write more than pap? Some of them have guts, most of them do not. I give them the BS sniff test.
Three References for Kitchen Renovation and Three References for a Book Purchase.
Since I already know book jackets are a crock (Book Jackets Sink or Sell a Book! Editors Should Not Write Jacket Copy! What’s With Those Bogus Book Reviews? Rate the Jacket Copy!); reviewers can have personal vendettas, allegiances, and agendas; the most luminary of authors can’t always get his facts straight while he is flappin’ his erudite gums; and anonymous hacks from a stable of hacks can’t be trusted, I tend to shop around to see what other sources are saying about the same book before I buy. If Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and Borders Books, as well as the independent bookstores and libraries would do the same, there would be a lot more good books and many fewer bad books on the shelves of bookstores, libraries and bedside tables across the country.