I recently wrote about the problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the traditional press.
One of the most esteemed print reviews still available is the New York Times Sunday Book Review (NYTSBR). Yet every week, as I look at it, I wonder why it is still on its pedestal. I guess I should mention that I much prefer the reviews in the The New York Review of Books, although the two magazines really are no longer comparable. With each passing week, the NYTSBR seems to become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who really wants a useful review of a book.
Why am I suddenly on this hobby horse? It just so happened that had just I begun reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, when the NYTSBR (July 4, 2010) appeared on my doorstep with a “comparative review” of this book and At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini. So I read the review (“To Save the Union” by Andrew Cayton), wondering did I buy the right book? Should I be reading both books? Should I be reading some other Clay biography?
Well I read the review and still am wondering. Typical of reviews in recent months, if not years, at the NYTSBR, the “review” is uninformative. It neither praises nor damns either book; in fact, it barely discusses the merits and demerits of either book. It gives a reader no guidance. Okay, I understand that the Compromise of 1850 is the thing for which Clay is most remembered although he had less to do with it than popular memory recalls. I also knew before reading the review that the Great Compromise wasn’t so great and that it failed a decade later. But neither fact makes a biography of Henry Clay good, bad, or indifferent, and considering Clay’s role in the 40+ years he was involved in national politics, there had to be more to his life than just the Compromise, and thus the justification for the biography.
Am I so out of touch that when I read a review I want to leave it with a sense that a book is well-written, well-researched, and a worthwhile read — or not? That it reads like a well-written novel or that it reads like a typical, dry, dense, academic text that only scholars who focus on the subject will appreciate?
Although this is becoming an increasing problem with magazines like the NYTSBR, this is also symptomatic of the online reviews of ebooks. Reviews are simply not enlightening. A review needs to balance background material that helps create an atmosphere for the book being reviewed (e.g., some context information about the times in which Henry Clay lived is important, just as it is important to know that he and President Andrew Jackson were in opposition to each other on virtually every matter during the Jackson presidency), with a description of the book itself, with a comparison to other books on the same subject (assuming there are others), and with the reviewer’s ultimate, clearly stated, opinion as to the worthiness of the book being reviewed.
To me it is as important to know that if I want to read the definitive biography of Henry Clay, I should be reading XYZ and not the book(s) under review (or vice versa). To me, it is important to know that although the book being reviewed is the best introductory general biography of Henry Clay currently available, it is so dryly written that a trek across the Sahara Desert would be a beach vacation.
What good is a review that assigns a book 3 stars, or 5 stars, or any rating at all if the reader has no real clue why it deserved such a rating? “Great book,” “quick read” are meaningless reviews, as are reviews like the review of the Clay books that raised my ire.
eBooks are clearly the wave of the future but because of the ease with which everyone can publish all of their meanderings, it is increasingly difficult to find that silver needle in the haystack of needles. The Internet is too wide a target; there is no bull’s-eye for finding a good book to read. Consequently, reviews of ebooks are going to be increasingly important to readers, which is why reviewers should look at the NYTSBR reviews, learn what is inadequate to identify that silver needle, and write their reviews with greater depth and better guidance, reviews that are more than excuses for a writer to write. Only when that happens will independent authors and publishers be able to secure the audiences they deserve.
One other thing all of these reviews should do: indicate whether the book(s) under dicussion is(are) available in print or ebook or both. Recognizing the shifting sands would be helpful.