Article — From the October 1959 issue

The Decline of Book Reviewing

( 3 of 5 )


Invariably right opinion is not the only judge of a critic’s powers, although a taste that goes wrong frequently is only allowed to the greatest minds! In any case, it all depends upon who is right and who is wrong. The communication of the delight and importance of books, ideas, culture itself, is the very least one would expect from a journal devoted to reviewing of new and old works. Beyond that beginning, the interest of the mind of the individual reviewer is everything. Book reviewing is a form of writing. We don’t pick up the Sunday Times to find out what Mr. Smith thinks of, for instance. Dr. Zhivago. (It would very likely be Mrs. Smith in the Herald Tribune.) As the saying goes, what do you have when you find out what Mr. Smith thinks of Dr. Zhivago? It does matter what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.

In a study of book reviewing done at Wayne University, we find that our old faithful, the eternally “favorable review,” holds his own with all the stamina we have learned to expect. Fifty-one per cent of the reviews summarized in Book Review Digest in 1956 were favorable. A much more interesting figure is that 44.8 per cent were non-committal! The bare meaning of “review” would strongly incline most people to the production of an opinion of some sort and so the reluctance of the non-committal reviewers to perform is a fact of great perplexity. The unfavorable reviews number 4.7 per cent.

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  • Livraria 30porcento

    The “adaptable reviewer, the placid, superficial commentator” not only survived in local newspapers but also colonized the blogosphere. All we can find now are book descriptions alongside an evasive commentary.

    • Averagio

      Your last sentence is well written; accurate. The standard USA book review is not much more than a giveaway of at least two thirds of the plot – the New York Times is perhaps the worst in this regard. I have read reviews where the entire ending is revealed – sometimes in the first paragraph. Read the British reviews!

  • Tom

    I used to think the perfect book review had three criteria.

    1. It provided you a sense of what was in a book.
    2. It enabled you to judge whether you wanted to read more.
    3. It was interesting in its own right.

    But then I read Sam Kriss’s review of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” by The American Psychiatric Association, entitled “Book of Lamentations”, and I realised that

    4. Exists as a work of art

    is also possibility.


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