Book Reviews: What are they good for?

A while back I asked the question noted in the title of this post. I laid out a few possible answers:

– Do you want a basic plot summery followed by reason to buy or not buy>
– Do you like a discussion of the issues raised in the book that only touches on the plot?
– Do you like a outline of what the author was trying to accomplish (in the reviewers eyes) and whether they succeeded?
– Do you like a political rant only tangentially related to the book in question? (Just teasing!)
– Some combination of the above or none of the above?

Since I received exactly zero comments from this query I thought I would continue to shout into the wind and answer the question myself.

As I thought about what I look for in a book review I realized that I enjoy different types of reviews depending on what I need. They break down like this:

1) Books I haven’t read but might be interested in.
In this category I often look for book reviews that tell me why I should or shouldn’t read a particular book. As a result I don’t want spoilers (in fiction) or detailed arguments about the substance of the book (non-fiction) but rather a good summary of why the book is worth reading. In essence these reviews are in the consumer reports category. They let me know that yes this is as good as its hype, or hey this little known work is worth your time, or avoid this one it doesn’t deliver.

2) Books I have read.
In this category I am looking for the authors reaction to the work. I want the reviewer to intellectually engage the work. These type of reviews set out what the author thinks the book is attempting and whether it succeeded or not. I enjoy these type of reviews because I can compare and contrast my reaction to the book with the reviewers. They can also bring out aspects or ideas that I might have failed to notice. As a result I don’t mind spoilers or in depth discussions of plot, etc. I want the review to show that the author has read and digested the book and has something to say about it

3) Books I probably wont read.
There are some books that I know I am unlikely to get to. In these cases I often enjoy a sort of blend of the categories noted above. I am looking for an overview of the book and why it might be important. In non-fiction for example, there are large scholarly works that I simply don’t have time for and so look to reviews to get a sense of the impact of the work. This way I may not have read the book but I am aware of it and have a general idea of what it is about. By reading reviews widely one can get a sense of any critical consensus on a given book or author. This helps give context to other reviews and works in the same genre or subject.

4) Extended Essays
There is another category that doesn’t necessarily fit in the above: the extended essay. Traditionally this type of essay uses a particular book, or a number of similar books, as a jumping off point for a longer “think piece.” It is not really a review per se as it won’t necessarily involve much by way of overviews or introduction, but rather assumes the reader has a working knowledge of the subject involved and seeks to engage in a deeper debate about the subject. It touches on the works involved but uses them to foster a larger debate that reaches beyond just the books. I enjoy these type of essays but they require a larger commitment of time and energy. Most likely I will need to have either a strong knowledge of the subject or a keen interest in it. What separates this category from #2 above is its length and depth. #2 wrestles with the issues at hand but doesn’t take them much beyond the scope of the work itself while #4 starts with the work but takes it deeper and wider; engaging in both a more specific and exact discussion of the work but also a more general discussion of the issue. In grad school for example, #2 might be a weekly assignment whereas #4 would be a semester project. In the magazine world, #2 would be one of many reports whereas #4 might be the cover essay.

Since I can only read so much new material, the reviews I enjoy the most are those that turn me on to a work I might not have read without the review, In fiction in particular what I am looking for is a reason to choose this particular work over another. But that said, the sheer volume of books published means I will read a lot more reviews than I will books. So those reviewers who can both give the potential reader an idea if the book will interest them and engage those who have already read it are a treat.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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1 Comment

  • Okay, I’ll play. I don’t really read reviews because I find they can color my opinion of the work. I like to get a general idea of the plot, etc, but not a detailed dissection of the story (talking fiction here — non-fiction, I think I like a little more detail). I tend to skim a lot of first paragraphs, second paragraphs of reviews to get the basics. If it’s an author I’ve read and liked, I don’t even do that much work. I’ve already developed a bond.

    Now, after I’ve read a book, that’s when I like the analytical reviews. I like to go back and see if my impressions correspond with the reviewer’s (or reviewers’). I like to get into the details of what I liked, what I didn’t like, to have my mind changed, or eyes opened. None of this is possible until after I’ve read the whole thing.

    And, not surprisingly, the rant-disguised-as-a-review can be lots of fun. Provided the author is particularly clever or enlightening.