On Reviewing Books

I began reviewing books for the sole purpose of being able to justify to myself my voracious reading habits. I tend to read several books at a time, and a great many of those books are contemporary novels. I’ve always felt slightly guilty for reading so many of these books, despite the fact that my so-called area of expertise is the contemporary novel. Nevertheless, reading as many novels as I do tends to bring about these feelings of guilt, or at the very least, disapproving looks from my friends who think I should be busy doing something meaningful like checking stocks or grading papers.

I began reviewing books in my local paper in upstate New York. I felt that I needed an outlet to justify my reading, but I also felt a certain sense of accomplishment from writing reviews. I felt I was entering into a much broader social conversation. My first review was on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale. All in all I wrote about half a dozen reviews for my local paper. I stupidly signed away all rights to these reviews and cannot even now, legally at least, republish them anywhere without written permission.

A few years later I began writing reviews for World Literature Today. This has been an enormously gratifying exercise. I retain rights once the review is published, and although I am not paid, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. WLT gives me a much bigger audience, and is much more of an intellectual challenge in that the reviews have to be 500 words or less. This practice takes discipline, and I have found that it has helped me become much more concise in my scholarly writing.

Writing reviews is an essential. It’s sort of like a boxer working out in the gym, training for the big fight. A lot has been written over the past few years about the decline of the book reviewer and book review sections of newspapers. All of this is sadly true: the book review, and the book reviewer has now been taken over by reviewers on Amazon. I’m not sure what kind of future the book reviewer and the book review section of newspapers have, but I find that we are a little less culturally advanced without them.

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