This summer I will be coming up on eight years of reviewing books on the blog (and a few more before that of reviews on Goodreads) accounting for something like a thousand book reviews. Since this is one of those days when I don’t have any books I’ve finished waiting for a review, I thought I’d reflect a bit on my reviewing philosophy as it has evolved over the years
- First of all, I try to review books that I’m actually interested in reading. I avoid requesting or accepting books to review I know I won’t like reading (one of the privileges of doing this work as an unpaid reviewer). So most of the time, I will be fairly favorable in my review of a book. That will be true even of books I don’t agree with.
- The major exceptions to this rule are when a book is badly written, or poorly argued, or takes too long to say what it is trying to say. I read such a book recently. It was on a topic I was interested in and had some information that I found enlightening. But it was repetitious and there was a lot that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe 200 pages worth. I was especially unhappy because this was a book I bought because of my interest!
- Speaking of concision, I try to write fairly brief reviews, in most cases 500-800 words. My aim is to give people enough for them to decide whether or not they want to buy the book. That means a summary of the book’s ideas, maybe a quote to give a sense of the author’s style, and some brief evaluation.
- I try to write for literate people rather than the academic guild. While I read some scholarly theological works and more serious works of fiction and non-fiction, I try to write for people somewhat like me, those with some education who want to benefit from those who are specialists without becoming one and who want to read good works of literature and enjoy them rather than overly deconstructing them. I think it sad that there are some in the academic world who cannot remember when they last enjoyed a book!
- I’m committed to respecting authors. I know how hard it is to do what they do both in writing and in launching a book. I believe respect means that I represent a book fairly, even when I disagree with the book or cannot appraise it favorably.
- Speaking of disagreements, I believe there is a fine line reviewers walk. Properly, a review is about the book, not about my personal views. So you will see books I don’t fully agree with. I often find much of worth in such books. Where I may engage a book is in appraising the arguments of a book, and whether they’ve fairly engaged my own views, when there is a disagreement between me and the author. Even here, this will usually be brief, with more ample space given to the content and what I see of value in the work.
- That said, I recognize that as a reviewer, while I try to read carefully, I cannot help but read from my own social situatedness and my own views of the world. I try to be aware of them, acknowledge them when relevant, but I will not apologize for them.
- I do have interests, which can be fairly diverse from mysteries to presidential biographies. I also have areas of focus from Pauline theology to environmental writing to anything decent by an Ohioan or about Ohio. I am interested in promoting Ohio writers as well as friends who are writers, if I think I can say something helpful about their books.
- I am still learning to review fiction. The art of brevity here is to say just enough to interest people in the plot of a book without taking away the fun of discovering the plot twists and turns for themselves. It goes without saying that one doesn’t leave spoilers. More difficult is the avoiding of connecting dots that the perceptive reader could use to deduce a conclusion. I have to learn more about the analysis of characters, of themes, and writing styles, again without giving away too much. I probably need to read other reviewers of fiction more to learn how they do it.
- Finally, I want to do my best to honor the relationship between reviewers and publishers. I love when I get to know publicists. I try to always express appreciation for the consideration of being sent a book for review and to do so in a timely fashion. And I make sure they have a copy of or a link to the review.
I am thankful for the chance to write and talk about what I think are good books. I’ve come to realize that reviewing is its own craft, and worthy of being done well. While I’m glad when an author says, “you got what I was trying to say” what means more is when a reader writes to say a book was illuminating or helpful or just a good read and a pleasant diversion. I’m even glad when someone tells me that my review convinced them this wasn’t a book they need to read. None of us can read everything!
I’m blessed to have friends who are authors and friends who are readers (some are both!) and my great fun is introducing these friends to one another in a way that enriches the social, intellectual, and literary capital of the world. That (and some free books) is pay enough!