There are a bunch of kinds of book reviews.
There are book reviews like the ones I write. When I write a book review, I'm just writing it for myself, because I feel the need to put down in words some thoughts about a book I read. I don't expect anybody else to read them, or find them worth reading, but sometimes they do. Many of the book reviews on a site like Amazon are like this.
But the majority of book reviews are part of the core functioning of the marketplace of books, to coin a phrase. Readers of books consume reviews because they are trying to find books they would like to read. Writers of books consume reviews because they are trying to understand what makes books work, or fail, and how they can incorporate that into their own writing. Publishers, distributors, catalogers and other middlemen and merchants in the marketplace of books consume (and sponsor) reviews because they are interested in the overall business of books: which books are popular and why? what needs are being met, and what are being overlooked? which opportunities for books are available, and which are over-saturated? etc.
I think that the vast majority, almost exclusively all, of the book reviews in the world, are one or the other of the above two kinds.
And increasingly, as the Internet dis-intermediates the marketplace of books, the above two categories are merging.
But there are, at least, two other kinds of book reviews.
One kind of book review is the "Important Person Making a Statement on Matters of Consequence, and Using a Book Review as the Vehicle." Think, say, of Seymour Hersh's recent Bin Laden bombshell. Or Leon Wieseltier's diatribe against technology.
Generally, these Deep Thoughts Disguised as a Book Review annoy me, and I give them a wide berth. But they are regular occupants of the world of book reviews, so I have to keep my eyes open for them and recognize them early enough to dodge out of the way.
A recent example of this (to me) is Cythia Ozick's observations on Harold Bloom's latest book: ‘The Daemon Knows,’ by Harold Bloom (titled "Shared Visions" in the print edition). Ozick clearly wants to be part of "the conversation" (the "Shared Vision") about Bloom's book:
If, as Emerson claims, the true ship is the shipbuilder, then is the true poem the critic who maps and parses and inhabits it? Can poet and critic be equal seers?Ozick goes on:
It is through intoxicating meditations such as these that Bloom has come to his formulation of the American Sublime, and from this to his revelation of the daemon: the very Higgs boson of the sublime.And later
So when Bloom tells us there can be no critical method other than the critic himself — meaning Bloom — we should not take it as blowhard hyperbole. With Emerson, he intends to pry open the unpossessed and to possess it, and to lead the reader to possess it too: a critical principle rooted in ampleness and generosity.
Uhm, I'm sorry: I'm sure there was something important being discussed here, but it was all "blowhard hyperbole" to me, like one of those dinner parties where, no matter how hard you try, the topic of conversation is entirely in an alien tongue (the "Higgs boson of the sublime"?).
Yet there is one final kind of book review.
This is the review where the reviewer is so passionate about the book, so entranced, so enthralled, so consumed, that all the reviewer can stand to do is to jump up, throw their arms wide, and shout out their joy at having found and read this book. Their passion and delight is brilliantly evident, and leaps out of the book review, drawing you in, infecting you with their own eagerness and joy.
These are the book reviews I always hope to find.
Such a review appeared recently, in the New Yorker, in Katheryn Schulz's review of Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk: Rapt: Grieving with your goshawk.
Schulz describes her apprehension about the book, fretting that it would be, as Macdonald herself describes it, "the most appalling falconry bore":
Listen to her now, two pages in:
Maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.
So much for the falconry bore. Intellectually, Macdonald is unhurried—she pauses to point out whatever is interesting—but, stylistically, she is like this passage, all pounce. Over and over, her writing takes you by surprise: no sooner have you registered the kitchen than, whoa, there’s the snow leopard, its huge Himalayan paws leaving prints on the tile and half a domestic shorthair hanging from its mouth.
Yes! Exactly! This is how a reviewer grabs you by the shirt collar and shoves a book into your face, saying "Read! This! Now!"
And lest you worry that you'll be wasting your time with the book, Schulz is careful to alert you to the fact that this book is not just a joy to read, but worth reading, as well:
Macdonald, who is writing both kinds of book at once, makes neither mistake. She is intimate and moving on the anguish that carried her into the company of hawks, but the world of her book is like the world we really live in, crowded with humans and human ideas, and she turns on it all the triple perspicacity of a poet, a naturalist, and a historian. She dissects the cultural symbolism attached to hawks from Victorian England to the Third Reich; she catalogues the classic animal stories by gay authors, who could not write openly of their human relationships; she observes that when a species is endangered it suffers not only numeric but also semantic decline. “The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have,” she observes. “Eventually rarity is all they are made of.”
It just so happened that I picked up a few other books first, but H is for Hawk is sitting there on my Kindle, waiting for me, and I know I'm not going to miss it; Schulz has made certain of that.
Some people say that the Internet is the end of reading and writing, and that all we can do now is formulate 140 character vocal burps and exchange pictures of kittens.
Which often seems to be closer to the truth than I'd like.
But then along comes Katheryn Schulz to arrest my despair, to keep me engaged, to draw me in, and to whet my appetite.
That, then, is the kind of book review that keeps me reading book reviews.