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.