The lighted window and the art of the book review

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Several months into blogging about books, I woke up this morning thinking about the nature of a book review. What should a book review do? What should a book review be?

The first book reviews most of us write are in elementary school, and were usually called book reports. These were pretty boring, and seemed designed mainly to help the teacher ensure that you had actually read the book. In high school, a very competent English teacher drilled into us the art of the essay about some piece of literature, but there was very little room for creativity. It was all about form, and that’s certainly important to master before moving on.

In college, there was room to get a bit more creative. I can’t tell you anymore what my English professors told me to do for essay assignments, but what I usually did when it came time to write an essay in an English class was to make the essay all about me. Isn’t that what writers always do? I wrote an essay on Romeo and Juliet about the incomprehensibility of love, because that’s what I was feeling at the time. I wrote an essay on Clarissa about the absence of Clarissa’s physical body, because as a women’s studies minor, I was very interested in women and bodies. I wrote an essay on Hamlet about what idiots my classmates were in the way they blamed everything on Gertrude, because they were kind of stupid (a lot of pre-law majors in the class…no offense to lawyers, but many of them made crappy English majors at my college).

At some point in college, I must have picked up the collected essays of Virginia Woolf, and seen that it was quite full of book reviews. Many of James Baldwin’s essays are also book reviews of a kind. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” is kind of about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. But only kind of. Really, the essay is about so much more than either of those books.

For a brief period, I had a subscription to the New York Review of Books. It was interesting, but didn’t seem to serve the purpose for which I had picked up the subscription–to find books to read. The reviews were very long, and they were not really always about the book. Interesting, but often about, well, the author of the book review rather than the book they were reviewing.

Since I’ve joined the book blogging world, I’ve seen currents of a kind of debate about what the purpose of a book review is. Is it informative, to tell other folks what the book’s about and whether or not you liked it? Here, a rating system comes in handy. Or is the purpose something else entirely? I have to confess that when I read many book reviews online, I skip the part where the author summarizes the plot of the book. I don’t really care about that. If I’m going to read the book, I’ll find that out. I skip right to the meat of the review (an odd metaphor for a vegetarian). Did the book move them? What did the book make them think about? Did the book make them think at all?  Did they love it, did they hate it?  What did they feel?  In a book review, I’m looking for the story.  Boy or girl meets book, and then what?

One of the things I love about blogging about books is that through the process of writing I find out things about the book that I might not have known had I just read it and moved on to the next one. I tell my students all the time that writing is thinking. You don’t think something and then write it. You figure it out as you write. This is where revision comes in handy, and revision, too, is thinking. But as teachers, we sometimes forget that the lessons we pass on to our students apply to ourselves as well. I write about books in order to help me think about them. And then to help me think about the world.

It seems to me that a book can be a starting off place for saying something else about the world. It seems to me that if I were an author, I’d be pretty happy for my book to be able to do that for someone. It’s hard for me to write a book review that is only about the book because the book has taken up residence in my life and become a part of it. The fact that I read Iris Murdoch’s novel, The sea, the sea, while on vacation with my family on the beach is quite important to my reading of it. I guess I could leave that out of my book review, and pretend that all the conclusions I came to about it or the experience I had of it as a book are somehow divorced from that context, but as my good friend would say, that’s bullshit. There’s a long feminist tradition asserting that we are people, living in bodies, with complicated lives shaping our particular views of the world. Why pretend this isn’t so?

So perhaps you might call this a manifesto for book reviews. I certainly try to do the courtesy of telling you something about the book in my posts (though sometimes even this was missing from the New York Review of Books). But I am happy to admit that my book reviews are mostly about me and the world as I see it, and where that particular books fits into that whole picture. They are none as good as James Baldwin, but like his essays, they attempt to be about much more than just the book. It seems to me that like a good book, a good book review should give me some window on the world, some insight into the viewpoint of a particular person or a way of seeing the world. A good book review should allow me to see more than just a picture of the book itself. It should also be like peering into a lighted window at night, catching glimpses of not just the book, but the inside of the house, the arrangement of furniture, the silhouette of a person in a chair, the hint of conversation and a whole other life. Perhaps just a glimpse, but a glimpse nonetheless.


  1. Book reviews are always tricky and I think they always leave a piece of the reviewer in them, and that's a good thing. And every reviewer has their own style, also a plus. I have found that in the 2 months I've been book blogging that my reviews have gotten a little longer as I've come into my own. I think that's a good thing and I hope my readers appreciate my insights. Time will tell!

    Also, was it just me that in elementary school had to write reports in the “hamburger” format? Intro paragraph was the “top bun,” then three middle paragraphs which were described as “lettuce, tomato and burger” and then closing paragraph otherwise known as the “bottom bun.” Anyone? Bueller?

  2. Thanks for this great post. It will help me rethink my own review format and purpose. In case you go and visit my blog, I'm ashamed to tell I have not posted any review since March 10, and 4 are waiting. But work needs to come first… alas. Emma @ Words And Peace

  3. Great post! One other thing I wonder is about how long it takes people to write their reviews. Sometimes I have a hard time summing up what the book is about. I never repost the blurb; I write my own synopsis. That takes time, depending on the book, the number of characters and so on. Sometimes I include a lot of quote, sometimes I don't (depending on the quotes give away too much info). Sometimes I find it takes me three hours to write a damned review and then I get mad at myself, because it should–not really!

  4. Really thoughtful post here, Robyn. Sometimes my reviews are really more blurbs–the kind of distillation that I have to write as a shelf talker for display in my bookstore, and I'm aware as I post them on my blog that sometimes they might seem disingenuous. My job is to sell books, so my blurbs must be pitched accordingly. It's nicer to be able to let my thoughts ramble on the blog, where as you say, the writing of the review let me know what I thought of the book.

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