Friday, December 16, 2005

Brief Thoughts on Book Reviewer Confessions

I got this from the ReadySteadyBook site. It is a short essay by George Orwell entitled "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" written in 1946. I printed it out to read it at my leisure, but as readers may know, leisure is not something I get often. So, I finally got the moments to read through it. I do not review books professionally (at least not yet), but I do write short notes on the books I read now and then. For anyone who reads a lot and who writes now and then about books, this essay will be an appreciated text. Orwell argues that book reviewing is a thankless job. He writes that book reviewing "not only involves praising trash--though it involves that, as I will show in a moment--but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever" (emphasis in original). I think a lot of librarians who do collection development will appreciate these feelings anytime they read some of the reviews in the various publications (Choice, Library Journal, etc., take your pick).

Very often librarians order books on the basis of a review, and the book turns out to be trash. Heck, I have ordered things based on reviews, and in at least one case have ordered something that turned out to be tripe. This leads me to wonder about some of the reviews I read, especially the ones where the reviewer expresses reservations about the book, but he or she goes on to recommend it anyhow. Choice reviewers are notorious for this; they will go ahead and point the defects in a book, and then they still recommend it for all libraries, or make it a must-have book. If the book is bad, I want to know it so I don't buy it. But I know there is some rule that you cannot have too many negative reviews. I think I actually saw that in a set of guidelines for reviewers some time ago. I wish I could recall where to post it here. So, like Orwell points out, a lot of trash gets praised. One the one hand, I have given thought to inquiring about writing reviews for someone someplace. On the other hand, I want the freedom to say if something is crap or if something is great. I can do that here, even if there is no fame or pay. Orwell also writes that "until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not appreciate how bad the majority of them are." I don't know if it takes a professional relationship, but I do know a lot of bad stuff gets published. For librarians, especially those who do readers' advisory, it becomes a matter of trying to steer away the reader from the tripe. And no, I am not saying we impose our tastes on readers. I am a firm believer in the Reader's Bill of Rights, and I believe anyone should be able to read what they want without apologizing for their tastes. But if we can steer them clear of stuff that would be tripe for them, even if we love it or hate it, I think that falls under good public service. Well, at least, like Orwell, I am not a film critic, who is worse off than the book reviewer according to Orwell. After all, the film critic can't even work from home.

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