Look At Me, Ma! I'm A Genre!
Are book reviews a genre unto themselves? Brian Doyle in this past Sunday's Oregonian makes a case for it:
Consider the difficulty of composing a brief piece, both graceful and pointed, that must juggle many tasks: assess the feats and flaws of the book at hand, its place in the works of that writer, its place in books on that subject, its general substance or silliness, and -- most of all -- whether the book is worth cold cash. Additionally, a good review should sketch the subject of the book itself in such a way that the reader gets a quick lesson in Antarctic exploration, beekeeping, Guy Fawkes, Tom McCall's fishing waders, etc.; one subtle kick of a book section in a newspaper is that it is fully as informative and stimulating as the rest of the paper (indeed usually more so), whether or not you immediately shuffle to the bookstore to lay your money down.
Not that Doyle doesn't cover the dangers of the genre (ooo... I LIKE that term) as well.
And like any form it has its charlatans and mountebanks; what is more entertaining, among the dark pleasures of reading a newspaper, than realizing that the reviewer has not actually read the book in question, and is committing fizzy sleight-of-hand? Or reading a review that is utterly self-indulgently about the reviewer, not the book?
It's a danger. And when haven't I once in a while found myself halfway through a book (paging Inkspell) wanting so desperately to just throw the book against the nearest wall and review it in its entirety? I don't, of course. That would be wrong. But the temptation is always there.
Anywho, check out Doyle's article. He has a wonderful way with words. I'd read a book review of his anytime.