Book reviews

In light of Bloglily’s recent post on book reviews (if you go there, make sure to check out the comments too), I found this passage particularly interesting — it’s by H.L. Mencken and I found it in Michael Dirda’s book:

A book review, first and foremost, must be entertaining. By this I mean that it must be dexterously written, and show an interesting personality. The justice of the criticism embodied in it is a secondary matter. It is often, and perhaps usually, quite impossible to determine definitely whether a given book is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The notion to the contrary is a delusion of the defectively intelligent. It is almost always accompanied by moral passion. But a critic may at least justify himself by giving his readers civilized entertainment …. If he is a well-informed man and able to write decently, anything he writes about anything will divert his readers.

I agree — if I like a writer, I’m willing to read him or her on any subject whatsoever, and I also agree that it’s impossible to pronounce for certain whether something’s good or not, so perhaps that shouldn’t be the point. A much more interesting point, as far as I’m concerned, is how the reviewer has made sense of the book from a personal point of view. I don’t mean the review has to be personally revealing, but rather what I find most interesting is watching a reviewer’s mind grapple with someone else’s words and ideas.  When this happens, the “this is good” or “this is bad”-type pronouncements don’t matter as much. That, in my opinion, is good entertainment.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Writing

4 responses to “Book reviews

  1. What a wonderful quote! I don’t really write “Reviews” (formal reviews that being) of books, but I do want to try and get away from the whole “I liked/didn’t like” formula. It is hard to call something good or bad, as my bad may be someone else’s wonderful! I really liked the discussion on Bloglily’s blog by the way!

  2. And isn’t it a shame that so many (professional) reviews fall into the trap of assigning a value judgment where none is possible? As a lit critic, you assume everything pans out in the book as it must, and then see where that takes you in thinking about what happens. As is so obvious from the wealth of blog reviews, so many people can have such differing responses to a book that no individual has the authority to pronounce a story ‘not good’. And yes, I really enjoyed the discussion, and the post on Bloglily’s site.

  3. I agree Danielle and Litlove — there’s no knowing what somebody else’s response to a book might be, so why discourage them from trying it?

  4. Although I sympathise with BlogLily’s challenge to the spirit of disparagement that marks many reviews, sometimes the process of writing a review brings me to an understanding of why I didn’t like it. If I don’t like something, I tend to be very dismissive of it. Instead of lumping it into a category of dislikes, writing a review offers up the opportunity to evaluate the elements of the book that I enjoyed, in light of what did not make it a pleasurable experience for me. I guess it’s a fine line between exploring your personal experience and discouraging others from having their own.

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