My Reviewing Philosophy

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

What Brings a Reviewer Joy

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I seem to be getting these more often. Requests from an aspiring author to review their book. I just responded to one. I also interact a good deal with authors, publicists, and publishers. There are some things that bring joy to this task.

  1. When the author does their homework and looks at what I review and helps me identify why their book fits my interests. One of the best books I’ve reviewed from an author contact reflected this. She figured out I liked local authors and regional works in the vein of Wendell Berry’s fiction. In most other cases, I turn the author down.
  2. I love to review books from real friends when the book is a work of quality–well-written about things that matter, fiction or non-fiction. It is fun to bring recognition to their work.
  3. It is a joy when a publicist follows what you’ve reviewed and suggests books from their publishing house in a similar vein.
  4. On some days, it is a joy just to get an answer to a request for a review book. Some larger publishers are very good about this. Some small publishers that need to be good at this just aren’t.
  5. What all this gets at is that one likes to be treated with respect. I’ve done this for seven years, built an audience, put thought into my requests, providing information about my platform and interests in the book. In my case I do it for the love of books, and getting the word out about good ones.
  6. I like getting physical books. If the cover is striking or I’ve been looking forward to getting it, I’ll snap a picture of it and post it on social media. I can’t do that with e-books. On social media, a picture of the actual book just looks better and allows me to promote it more than once. I find it easier to review physical books as well.
  7. I don’t expect to be thanked by the author. Reviewing ethically is a bit of an arms-length task. But I do take joy when an author writes to say I represented their book well and accurately. I try hard to do that because I respect the work of writing and re-writing and re-re-writing that goes into a book. I will say that when I have a pleasurable interaction with an author whose work I’ve liked, I’m more inclined to review their next book.
  8. It is a pleasure to come across a book that is well-written and has a degree of originality–it isn’t a rehash of things you’ve read before with a different cover. It is a joy to come across a new author who does that. It doesn’t happen very often.
  9. Above all, I always enjoy learning that someone who has read one of my reviews acquired, read, and enjoyed the book, and shares with me what it meant to them.

Reviewing does involve a certain amount of work, from scanning catalogues and publications to identify books, responding to queries, actually reading the book (I always read it through, sometimes more than once), writing and editing the review, posting it (I post in multiple places with a reach of over 12,000–without shares), and interacting with comments, sometimes providing more information about the book. Mostly, I do it for the intrinsic satisfaction. But authors, publicists, publishers, and readers can greatly add to the joy, as they often do. Mostly, it just comes down to a little respect. Aretha was right.

Five Years Later…

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I received this little recognition from WordPress, where my blogs are hosted, on Sunday. A day after I registered, I wrote my first post, Writing on Reading, and took the plunge into the world of blogging. That was on August 13, 2013.

It has been, on the whole, a delightful journey. What has made it so special are the interactions with so many who follow the blog, either on WordPress, or via social media. Many of those interactions are online, and often, I feel I am learning as much as I’m sharing. Perhaps some of the most delightful interactions, though, are with people I would call “anonymous followers” who I run into at a conference or other gathering and tell me how much they appreciated a particular post, or the blog more generally. It reminds me that there is a world of readers out there beyond the comments and the likes and the stats.

But if you like stats, here are a few. Currently 1099 people follow the blog. Actually, a month ago this number was more like 3300, but included all my Facebook friends on my personal profile as well as my WordPress followers. Facebook changed their policy recently and would only count and allow posting to those on your Facebook Page. Actually, that’s OK, because the current number is a more honest reflection of those really interested. Over the past five years, I’ve written 1630 posts and, as of writing had 301,787 visitors and 439,774 views on the blog. That’s an average of 240 views a day over five years–which in blogging circles is modest success.  The all-time top post was Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Top 10 (from 2015) that has had 19,966 views to date. Nearly since the beginning, I’ve posted six days a week, taking Sundays off, with a couple of breaks, one for a conference I was directing, another for emergency foot surgery.

Somewhere over the past five years, I went from posting book reviews to becoming a reviewer. The transition was one of simply reviewing whatever I read to developing relationships with various publishers to review newly published books, either in print or e-galley form, sometimes before the books were published. I’ve learned the value of becoming a reliable reviewer, producing clear content related to a book in a timely fashion. The payoff is the chance to review more of that publisher’s books. Sometimes I’ve had the chance to interact with authors as well. I love it when an author reads a review, and whatever I thought of the book, says, “you understood what I was trying to say.” It is gratifying when I learn that I’ve been able to connect an author whose work I deeply appreciate with a reader who will find the work amusing, informative, or even, on occasion, transformative.

Booksellers are another group of my heroes. In the age of online sales, I so appreciate the work of those who curate a selection of books in a way that is responsive to their customers, work hard to build a customer base, host book events, and attempt to pay the bills every month. I appreciate those who have taken the time to let me into their world, even a little.

I mentioned a Youngstown post earlier. This was something I think I fell into by accident. It began with a post where I talked about one of these conversation exercises used at conferences. The question was, “what is something I probably don’t know about you that you should ask me about?” My answer was “what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown.” I wrote a post about that and someone said I should write some more about that. Early on, I wrote a post about food, which exploded when I posted it in some Youngstown Facebook groups. For the past four years I’ve been learning about everything from ethnic foods to city founders, reading more than a few Youngstown books, writing about it, and then learning a ton more from the comments of others. I’ve discovered that to know who you are, you need to know where you’ve come from.

Downsides? There is the struggle of every writer to figure out what you want to say and then making the words on the screen reflect the ideas in your head. Mercifully, I’ve had few “trolls”–perhaps I’m not that interesting. I’ve learned that your website can be wrongly blacklisted, and it can take months to undo. It happens often enough that there are businesses who deal with this stuff. Add this to all the ways people try to defraud you online and offline….

To end on a positive note, I have to give a shout out to the folks at WordPress, who have designed software that is easy to work with and gets you online quickly. Beyond that, I’ve found their support people among the very best to work with whenever I’ve had a question or problem. Most of the time, it all just works so seamlessly that you forget all the people working behind the scenes that make it work. After five years, though, it seems appropriate to say thanks to the folks at WordPress that help my voice be heard, my reviews seen, and all those great Youngstown conversations to happen. Thank you, WordPress!

One Book Reviewer’s Pet Peeves


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On the whole, as I wrote yesterday, reviewing books over the past five years has been a great experience. I do have a few pet peeves though.

  1. Unsolicited requests to review books utterly unrelated to my reviewing interests. Mercifully they have been few, perhaps because of the link to “How I Choose Books to Review” in my “About” page.
  2. Publicists at publishing houses who don’t respond to requests for review copies. Even a note saying, “thanks, but our review copies are limited to…” or “thanks, but we have already sent our allotted review copies.” I’m a person and not a bot and am interested in reviewing one of your books and talking about it with my network.
  3. Books with important things to say, that unfortunately are said badly. One person commented yesterday, “I’ve wondered if reviewers get books that they just really have a hard time reading, whether due to writing quality, subject matter, or for some other reason, but they have to slog through regardless to produce a fair review. It would take a lot of the joy out of reading.” Yes.
  4. Books that really should have remained articles but were padded out. Ten chapters that are variations on a theme with different stories. OK, I get it, already!
  5. People who ask questions about a book without reading my review. They don’t want to spend a couple minutes actually reading the review. I wonder if it occurred to them how much time goes into the reading of a book, and then writing a review that distills a book into a couple minutes reading? I’m happy to take time to respond to questions and comments about a review someone has read. But it seems insulting to ask me to take time to tell them what they could have found if they took the time to read the review.
  6. I don’t like it when people try to hi-jack comments on a post to promote their own blog, or book, or make off-topic comments. No one likes people who do this at a party. What makes people think it is OK online?
  7. There are people who argue with you about a book whose point of view they don’t agree with. It’s fine to engage me when you disagree with my assessment of a book. But if you disagree with the content of the book, your argument is with the author.
  8. Finally, I’m not a fan of e-galleys, especially the ones that expire. Worse is when they mix capitalization and lower case and weird formatting to prevent distribution. dO yOu like ReadIng senTences like thiS? I don’t have a tablet other than a Kindle. If you send an e-galley in an Adobe Digital Edition or epub format, the only way I can read it is by squinting at my phone. A print copy, even an advanced review copy, costs more, but it tells me you value the publisher-reviewer relationship. An e-galley doesn’t.

Apart from the last, most of these things happen rarely. E-galleys seem to be becoming more the rule than the exception. Most publicists respond quickly, usually positively and graciously when they can’t send the book I’m requesting. Most commenters read the reviews and take the conversation I’ve started in my review further. I enjoy most of the books I read–relatively few are a slog.

I think, on balance, book people, whether they write, publish, sell, review, or read, value and respect each other as well as sharing a common love–books! I think all of us realize that we need each other to sustain a reading culture.

Things That Book Reviewers Love


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Reviewing books, like most things in life has its upsides and downsides. I thought I’d take the next two posts to share some of each from my own experience, and would love to hear what others who review think.

Here are some things book reviewers like:

  1. Review copies which we don’t pay for. Before you think you’ve died and gone to book heaven, though, realize that the implicit contract is “we send you this book with the expectation that you will read it, review it, and send us a link or your written review in a reasonable time–usually within two months.” And if you think you are getting a deal, just consider the retail cost of the book divided by the time it takes to read it, write your review, and post it.
  2. I like getting real books rather than e-galleys. I know this is more costly, but I find I interact better with print copies than e-galleys, and hopefully write better reviews.
  3. I appreciate it when publishers and authors re-tweet, post, and otherwise share reviews, particularly with links to the blog. I understand that they won’t publicize something they think is unfavorable, of course. But we work in a symbiotic relationship. I help get the word out about books and usually I choose to review things I think are worthwhile. Publishers and authors can help bring new people to my blog and extend its reach.
  4. I don’t expect it, but it is always nice to hear from an author. Perhaps the best message is, “you understood what I was saying and represented it accurately.” Of course, I don’t mind being corrected if I am wrong.
  5. I enjoy people who read my reviews and ask questions or share their own take on a book if they have read it, even if they disagree with mine. Reviewing online is an interactive process. I appreciate it when people take the time to understand what I’ve written and engage with me. I hope I show that! I learn, and sometimes change my own mind when I read others thoughts.
  6. I love it when a review encourages someone to get the book. I’m not a bookseller, but reading worthwhile books and reading them well is something I care about because it is vital to lifelong learning, and thoughtful engagement with our world.
  7. I love it even more when I hear from someone after they’ve read a book they bought because they read a review at Bob on Books, especially when they’ve had a good experience with the book.
  8. Sometimes there are people I don’t even know are paying attention, who I’ll run into personally, who tell me they follow the blog, or really appreciated knowing about a particular book, or reading a particular post.
  9. I started writing reviews because they helped me remember what I read and what I thought about what I read. I still love that because it makes me a more intellectually engaged reader. And if it proves helpful to others, all the better!

Bob on Books is coming up on its fifth birthday and over that time, I’ve written over 1600 posts, including roughly 700 reviews. On balance, it has been a great experience, and much of the reason has to do, not with books as much as I love them, but with people–ranging from helpful publicists to fascinating authors to booksellers who really love books and work like crazy to make a go of it. Finally, there are all of you, who follow, who write and comment–sometimes online, and sometimes personally. Thank you for reading, writing, and interacting and making this a space where people across their differences talk about things that matter!


Reading Versus Reviewing

twitter_reviewerOver the past several years I’ve transitioned from reviewing books simply being my way of remembering books to reviewing being a means of communication and dialogue about books through this blog. Along the way I’ve found that there are at least some aspects of reviewing that are in tension with just plain old reading for fun. A few of these are:

  1. The preference for new books. Reviewing tends to focus on recently published books. I was made aware of this the other day when I remarked that a book from 2009 (!) was an older book. When I was just reading, I paid no attention to these things.
  2. Reading to a deadline. This is particularly so if you request a review copy of a book. Most of the time, publishers hope you will write a review within 60 days. When you are just reading, you can get around to that book whenever you want.
  3. Thinking about the review while you are reading. Actually, I think this makes me a better reader as I am consciously thinking about the flow of the book, how I will summarize, what I want to highlight. I often don’t do these things if I am “just reading.”
  4. The temptation to read and review what people seem to be interested in. It’s fascinating that my most popular review of this past year was on Exposing Myths About Christianity. It wasn’t a bad book by any means but hardly the best I’ve read. Far less popular was my review of The Drama of Ephesians, which I thought a far better book. I just have to remember that I don’t get paid for this so viewer stats really don’t mean much. It’s what I’m interested in and even if just a few find out about a good book, it matters for them.

What all this does is help sharpen the focus of what I am doing. Above all, I am conscious that there are so few books out of the numbers being published that I can actually read in whatever life remains to me. I think about the exhortation of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I don’t see this as confined to religious ideas which sometimes can be as untrue, ignoble, corrupted, unlovely, and despicable as any trashy novel. In whatever I read, I try to choose books that explore the good, the true, and the beautiful in life–whether in matters of faith, good science writing, a well-constructed mystery, or a biography of someone who has lived a worthy life. My tastes range across all these categories and more which is why you might encounter a review of a theology work one day and a baseball book the next. One day I’ll review a current book, another day one ten or fifty or a thousand years old.

And that leads to what I’m trying to do in this blog. David Brooks, in The Road to Character (reviewed here) speaks of wanting to initiate a conversation about our moral ecology and about what makes a virtuous life. While I have nothing of the reputation of a Brooks, it is something akin to this that I’ve been trying to do, whether writing about books or my experiences growing up in Youngstown. Along with classic thinkers, I believe that the well-lived life is one lived in pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. In what I read, think, and write about, I want to explore the sources of goodness, truth, and beauty, celebrate the various expressions of that, and consider how we might pursue such things together in a civil society.

So, if you are trying to make sense of why I review the stuff I do, both new and old, and what might be behind the other things I write about, this is the best clue I can give you to the methods in my madness!

Happy Birthday Bob on Books!

One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

Bob on Books is two years old! The picture above is the one that adorned my very first post. Since then, I’ve read most of those books but some never managed to work their way to the top of the TBR pile, for reasons known only to my subconcious, if that. Looking back on that first post, I had no idea where this blog was going to lead! The one thing that has been true is lots of conversation on books, reading, and life.

Bob on Books by the numbers. This is my 689th post. One or another page on the blog has been viewed just under 100,000 times (I expect to hit this milestone later this week). The growth of the readership has been slow and steady–I write for a bit of a quirky audience–booklovers, university geeks, people of faith, and surprisingly, a loyal audience of people from my home town of Youngstown. In 2013, I averaged 23 views a day on the blog. Last year, this went up to 124, and this year so far, I’ve been averaging 227. Currently 2,229 “follow” the blog in some form, but the viewership is far wider because of posting in a number of groups and re-posting on other blogs. WordPress tells me that people have visited from 150 countries, the top five outside the U.S. being Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil (!), and India. Altogether, I don’t think this is too bad for a “toddler”!

Bob on Books — the conversation. I wrote early on that my hope for this blog was that it would be “a meeting place for anyone who cares about good literature, who loves books and reading, and wants to talk about ideas that matter.” It has been that and so much more. We’ve talked about what we liked and disliked about books, about what makes for a good society and a good life, and even a good pizza! We’ve explored this activity so many of us love and take for granted, the act of reading and what makes for good reading. We’ve talked about what we do with all those books once we’ve read them, and what we do about the ones we haven’t read.

A big surprise has been the continuing conversation with the unique tribe of people who, like me, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. What began as a few posts to answer the question of what it was like to grow up in working class Youngstown has become a rich conversation about what made this such a good place. I’ll never forget a post from last fall in which I posted a picture of a cigar box, which many of us used for pencil boxes, only to get a flood of comments from others who did the same, and who, in some cases still had them. I’ve come to understand something I’d only dimly intuited–that growing up working class was an incredibly rich experience that has shaped my life more than I knew.

Bob on Books — On reviewing. I don’t think I anticipated when I started this blog that I would become far more reflective on the art and ethics of reviewing. One of the things I’ve discovered is that authors are engaging us in a conversation, and reviewing and discussing books via social media can be a wonderful way of turning monologue into real conversation, mostly with other readers, but sometimes with the authors. We don’t always agree, but what I hope for is that they can say, “you understood what I wrote and were fair in representing the book.”

I’ve come to realize that reviewers, and not just the ones in the New York Times, play an important role in connecting authors to readers and promoting a literate society. Fundamentally, we help people answer the basic question of “why should (or shouldn’t) I read this book when there are so many others?”

Bob on Books — The Vision. Years ago, a leader I respected said, “you may be a reading Christian without growing, but you cannot be a growing Christian without reading.” In an age of busyness and visual media saturation, I hope to encourage the rediscovery of ways the reading of good works may nourish our souls, deepen our intellects, and elevate our aspirations. There is more to life than reading, but I am firmly convinced that the best books point us to that “something more” and that the richest conversations in life are about that “something more.” I look forward to more of those as long as God grants me to write!