How many books do you review?
That’s a fairly easy question for me to answer. For the last couple of years I’ve reviewed about 120 books a year or about ten a month, or two to three a week. This month, I’ve reviewed eleven. I review books I’ve read and completed, and I review just about anything I read, unless I’ve reviewed it before.
I generally read for about 90 minutes to two hours in the early mornings and an hour or so most evenings and then catch as catch can. I usually have something in my bag if I have a break between meetings. Sometimes, airports and planes have proven a great place to read. (Up until now I’ve resisted getting a smartphone, and I think this allows me more reading time).
That means I read fairly quickly and one of the things I’m wrestling with honestly as a reviewer is the balance between reading quickly and reflectively. Perhaps the best answer I’ve found so far is that the reflection part comes when I’m not reading, and also when I actually write reviews.
I was curious about how I stack up to other reviewers and found that I’m about in the middle. At one extreme is Nenia Campbell, a Goodreads reviewer. In a 2014 Washington Post article, it was reported that she had reviewed 1557 books on Goodreads in the last 12 months and was their number one reviewer. That’s 30 books a week! And she reads everything from bodice-rippers to Jane Austin to works of philosophy. My 2-3 books a week is positively pedestrian! But then to put it all in perspective, a Pew Research Study shows the average American adult reads 5 books a year.
I found a more realistic spread in a Baseball Book Reviewers Roundtable where reviewers reviewed between 10 and 175 books a year, with most between 30 and 60. In a Times Literary Supplement article, I learned that George Orwell reviewed about 700 books, plays, and films over two decades, about 35 per year. In 1940, he reviewed 135 in 67 review articles. He also wrote an essay on book reviewing, where he speaks of the regular reviewer as anyone writing over 100 reviews a year (I guess I qualify). He gives an unflattering picture of the reviewer’s work:
“Every writer, in any case, is rather that kind of person, but the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash — though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment — but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.”
One of the difference between Orwell’s time and our own is the rise of those who aren’t paid for their reviews, including most of those on blogs or Goodreads. Editors can assign books to read that the reviewer has not choice but to write on. For bloggers, there is more choice but the temptation of the review copy can lead us to read things we otherwise wouldn’t touch. Publishers who send them like prompt reviews as well. There is a temptation to be driven by this so that they will keep sending you books. I’ve had to start saying “no” and learning to be really selective and only request what I really want to read, and only when I’ve finished what i already agreed to review. As it is, I have a stack of eight TBRev (To Be Reviewed) to distinguish from To Be Read.
What it seems to come down to for me is keeping my freedom to read what I love and enjoy what I’m reading. it seems that is the freedom we have when we aren’t making our living by this work but simply sharing and engaging with others about what we think is worthy of reading. And the right number of reviews is simply what one can do without compromising that love and joy and worth and becoming Orwell’s jaded reviewer.