Reviewing reviews

Today’s Globe and Mail has a provocative column on the state of the book review. Martin Levin (book editor with the Grope and Flail) starts off with an overview of where ‘book pages’ or ‘book sections’ appear in North American newspapers – and makes some observations on newspaper-reviewing vs blogging. While providing a helpful link to the (US) Critical Mass blog (which developed from a debate on the future of book reviews), he’s generally sceptical about the ability of blogging/commenting etc to be a viable alternative to serious book reviewing pages or sections in national/regional newspapers. (I suspect Andrew Keen‘s forthcoming book will deal with these themes with more detail and less tolerance of the Web!)

I like book reviews. I tend to use the quality and quantity of reviews as a factor in deciding which paper/magazine to purchase – and I occasionally pick up the LRB or the New York Review (although they are expensive in Ireland). I also read reviews online (both copies of print stuff and online-only stuff). In academic journals, I read the review sections of otherwise unimpressive publications. I even subscribe to NPR’s book talk podcast and the Guardian’s books blog. In short, I like reviews. A lot. And therefore of course I’m going to say that more reviews is better. That said, though, I think there’s something to be said for keeping reviews in mainstream newspapers (perhaps even alongside ‘other’ arts coverage rather than standalone – so that it can’t be chucked into recycling so easily – yes I appreciate I’m being far too Reithian here but it’s just to highlight the point). What I don’t want is for ‘reviewing’ to come through comments (even with a voting system) on Amazon.com. Amazon’s job is not the same as Martin Levin’s as a books editor. (Similar arguments to those discussed in Michael Zimmer’s post on ‘libraries v bookstores v Google’. And so, I’m glad that Levin’s article concludes as follows:

Here’s what worries me: The malignant idea that books, and book talk, are culturally marginal, even irrelevant, to be consigned to special publications and websites. Newspaper book reviews are often the first voice in public conversations about issues and ideas and writing that matter. And that’s what we’re in danger of losing.

Amen.

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