Do We Need Book Reviews?

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I have a lot of books.  So do you, or you wouldn’t be here.  The volumes on my shelves range from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, from Apuleius’s The Golden Ass to Xenophon’s Anabasis, from science fiction titles at Small Beer Press to  Viragos.

This year I have cut my subscriptions to several book review publications.  Why?  It’s a matter of budget, and it’s a matter of what I need.  Perusing my book journal has taught me that the books I read usually (a) predate this century, (b)  are in the canon, or are neglected classics, and  (c)  have not been recently reviewed.  I do not really need The New York Review of Books, the TLS, or the LRB cluttering up my house.  I have time to read two articles per issue, if that.   We get The New York Times once a week now.  That’s enough.

Most books I’ve read this year were already on my shelves, but there are ten exceptions.  Book news on the internet was often the impetus rather than reviews.

  1. The Misalliance by Anita Brookner.  Impetus:  news of her death.
  2. Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis.  Impetus:  news that it won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
  3. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  Impetus:  interview in The New York Times.
  4. Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring.  Impetus: a new book, The Prose Factory, by D. J. Taylor, which I pre-ordered from Amazon before any reviews were out.
  5. MFK Fisher’s The Theoretical Foot.  Impetus:  a column in BookPage (a book promotion paper; this was the closest to a review)
  6. Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First.  Impetus:  a selection at Emily Books (an online book club)
  7. Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance.  Impetus:  a science fiction blog
  8. Sheila Kaye-Smith’s The End of the House of Alard.  Impetus:  a Best Book of Year at the Spectator a few years ago.
  9. Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water.  Impetus:  Review copy.
  10. Alan Silitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.  Impetus:  Review copy.

The internet has raised many questions about traditional publication. Online resources really are cutting my need to subscribe to review publications. Many newspaper book pages are now free on the internet, or at least the first 10 articles are free each month.  Perhaps this is a mistake: I do not know how free articles benefit the publications at all.  Newspapers are closing down all over the country and the employees must be frantic.  I think that is why critics are so elegaic about their careers.  They do not see a future for criticism.  I’m not Cassandra, so I do not know the answers.  It is frightening to see our world change in just a few short decades.

Then there are blogs.  Dovegreyreader has rocked the world of English publishers by selling books worldwide when she is enthusiastic.  How many readers does she have?  Ten thousand a day, I read some years ago?  I love her writer’s voice, but do not often share her taste, so the reading of the blog does not translate into buying theb ook.  I do read the enthusiastic blogs on my blogroll (well, the ones that are not shut down), but  I have difficulty finding out about new ones.  The bloggers I read do not read the newest books:  they read classics, reprints of neglected books, or well-written books by women.  They set aside weeks for reading Virginia Woolf or Hermann Hesse:  very laudable!  Currently the blogger Kaggsysbookishramblings is rereading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, and Ellen Moody has recently written on Trollope’s Orley Farm.

And so here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, wondering what the fallout will be from my personal decision to cancel some subscriptions.  I hope there will be none.  I hope the internet will be a friendly place for critics and bloggers to co-exist.

12 thoughts on “Do We Need Book Reviews?

  1. Obviously I’m not a reader who often reads modern books! I used to, but I find few contemporary works that I feel merit the time, particularly as I get older with limited reading time left! And to be honest, most of the impetus to read a book comes from bloggers – their recommendations rarely fail me! The review publication I used to rely on most was the free book supplement that came with the Saturday edition of the London Times each week – but they stopped that some years back (shame!) and so I haven’t really bought one since….

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    • The internet really does change the way we learn about books. I love book review supplements, but the only one left in the U.S. is The New York Times Book Review. There are many bloggers who read older books, thank God! though I miss the big book review pages of old days.

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  2. The great virtue of The New York Review of Books, the TLS, or the LRB is that they save you reading books, especially non-fiction. They provide articles or reviews of books on topics I’m interested in, but not curious enough about to read whole books about.

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    • Oh, I do agree. I love to know what books are out there, and do vividly remember reviews of a book about walking the Nile, first in British papers and then the U.S. The Americans liked it better, which fascinated me. Book review publications are great resources. I’m thinking of rotating the review papers I get: one a year!

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  3. I used to get a lot of reading recommendations from The Sunday Times Culture section but I find it speaks to me less and less these days. I bought Carly Simon’s autobiography Boys in the Trees because they told me the writing was wonderful and I found it virtually unreadable. They are also heavily weighted towards male writers. I get more recommendations from bloggers and of course I re-read Austen a lot of the time!

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    • I started reading Chrissie Hynde’s memoir because of a good review, too. Not for me: I’m a fan, but not that big a fan! I think as we get older we have more experience; some reviewers may know less about books than we do. I do love book reviews, but they don’t affect me much.

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  4. This is really a good question. I think the answer is simply yes; what is definitely changing is how book reviews are read now that the internet and blogging have become so prominent. I find the reviews on Goodreads (now owned by Amazon) and Amazon’s reviews, while helpful, are limited, so I rely more and more on what other bloggers are saying although I do read online (i.e., free) reviews, but the New York Times is not what it used to be. I prefer the Guardian. I see too that many bloggers get free review copies, but essentially their work goes unpaid. I also read Brainpickings and understand that she actually makes money from her blog in that she gets a percentage of the sales she generates with her links to Amazon, but this needs to be verified. Good bloggers like yourself do provide a service, so the question becomes one of remuneration or who benefits — including publishers.

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    • I don’t know what we’d do without book reviews, and I am surprised at how little effect they have on my reading these days. I love the Guardian! That book section is standing strong. The reviews at the NYT are still good, but they are shorter than they used to be, as are articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere. I suppose the shorter attention span from the internet has caused that!
      And obviously professional reviewers are doing a better job because they ARE paid. Money makes a difference in the quality of work, and bloggers don’t get paid, though many regard the free books as payment at first. I do occasionally review copies from publishers, and I wonder if our blog reviews help the publishers: the writer Sherry Jones explained once that average blogger probably only has a few hundred readers, so the books have to be marketed to a lot of readers.
      Publishing is a tough business and I do hope the really good writers get recognized. But it does seem the same few books get all the attention in the reviews.

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  5. As a non Anglophone living in a non Anglophone country, I need book reviews.
    When I was living in Paris, that was easy: I went to WH Smith in the rue de Rivoli, and found all the newspapers and magazines I wanted.
    Now that I live in the depth of countryside, I have no possibilty to have access to newspapers and magazines at all unless I were to subscribe to them. I rely on free articles on the net, blogs, and advice from friends.
    Nevertheless, although there are great bloggers (Brainpickings is an example, you are another), I think that being a critic is a job in itself, and there is a difference between the amateur critic and blogger and the paid critic in a newspaper and / or magazine.
    This is all for new fiction. Do I need reviews for classics? I am not so sure: I prefer a reading group online where ideas may be traded or a discussion with friends.
    There is also the issue of non fiction books and essays (philosophy, theology, literary criticism, etc.) that are not or seldom encompassed by blogging. For them, I rely on reviews.
    At last, from the publisher point of view, a friend of mine, publisher in Paris and Moscow, told me once that his house has to deal carefully about the social media(s) and cater to bloggers; tweeters, and others, as well as to the established “classic” critics. Again, it depends a lot about the genre of the book – fiction or non fiction.

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    • Oh, I’m sure the publishers do have to be careful about social media! They want bloggers on their side rather than against them. Professional reviewers have to work harder than bloggers: the work has to be polished or rejected. But I read reviews of fiction mainly to find what’s out there, not because of the reviewer’s opinion. Sometimes the reviewers have less background than I do in an author’s work! I am very fond of essays by writers who are talking about lost writers, though.

      Yes, as to classics, books of criticism and book groups are the best way to go. So much has been written about the classics that it’s difficult for a blogger to add to that, and we sound naive. I care less about the judgement of classics at, say, Goodreads than the Wash Post. But I must say the reviewers of Lawrence Durrell at Goodreads are a bright bunch!

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