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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

I am breaking away from my regular list of books because I have been thinking quite a lot recently about what makes a great book review? There was an interesting, albeit somewhat controversial article in the February 2008 Prospect Magazine called Critical Condition by William Skidelsky which discusses the demise of the book review in both Britain and the United States. In the article, Skidelsky pointed out that one of the nails in the coffin of the professional reviewer was the dearth of bloggers who were all now setting themselves up as reviewers and who were essentially flooding the internet with reviews of varying quality. As I read, I realised that I too was one of those bloggers…

I love reading the book reviews in the Prospect magazine each month, and whenever I do buy the newspaper (which, I have to admit, is not often), the books section is generally the first section I go to. I pick up the Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker whenever I can get them, and I generally find my list of ‘books to buy’ grows rapidly from these recommendations. However, I also love the reviews written at grass roots level – the Amazon reviews, the reviews on LibraryThing, individual book blogs. I think the book world is a much richer place because of this flood of new opinion, but, like Skidelsky, I wouldn’t like to see the traditional book review die.

This made me think about my own writing, and then made me start to wonder – what is it that makes a great book review? I tend to read quite quickly which I am sure means I miss things (but which has the concomitant benefit of enjoying the book for a whole raft of different reasons the next time I pick it up). In order to write the exquisite, measured reviews of Prospect, the first thing I thought was to slow down, or at least read with a notebook and pen beside me to take notes of things as I thought of them.

I think it also requires a good, rounded world view and being well-read definitely helps. Then there is the ability to craft words and opinion so that they are coherent, and make pertinent comparisons and constructive criticism.

It also presupposes that you know how to read a book. That may sound strange, because we all know how to read, but there is reading and there is reading thoroughly. I think the latter requires many different skills – an understanding of narrative voice, plot, characterisation, theme, context, genre etc. etc. Perhaps those of us who have spent the past 30 years of their lives with their nose in a book are subconsciously aware of these things, but I believe the art of a great book review is to take these things out of the subconscious and deliver them succinctly as part of the argument.

I am aware that in order to be a great book reviewer, I have a long way to go and a lot to learn but it is a journey I am glad to take. I think having a blog, rather than thinning the quality, in fact gives those of us who care enough a medium to practice and improve. And in the meantime, I will continue to study the reviews delivered to me in my favourite magazines and each time I do, I will pick up one tiny bit extra which will make my own review writing improve.

And in the meantime, I continue to ask the question. What is it that makes a great book review?

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Just to take a quick breather from my reading list, I wanted to post about two more things which are taking up my time…

The first is LibraryThing – originally, being somewhat anal about recording things, I had catalogued all of my books using a pretty fabulous piece of software called Book Collector from collectorz.com. The reason I loved this was that I could just plug in my ISBN number and in most cases, all the details of my book would spring up from Amazon or any of the other sources I had identified, ready to be written to my database. I went through my whole collection, including those books too early for an ISBN, and was temporarily satisfied.

It was about that time that I discovered LibraryThing. I was in a second hand book shop and I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether I owned any Graham Greene, and if I did, which one. I remember thinking “if only I could log on to my catalogue from my mobile and check…” The long and short of it is I didn’t own any Graham Greene, so having missed out on a bargain, I hunted around for an online catalogue.

I haven’t looked back. Not only is it easy to transfer your database, but you have the added bonus of a strong community. I spend hours virtually wandering through the libraries, reviews, groups and comments of my fellow book addicts. I always knew that there were plenty of us out there – it was just nice to find a place where we could all congregate – no matter where we were in the world.

Reading Challenges

And then, after joining several groups, I discovered the fun of reading challenges! Although I had set myself challenges before, it is so much more fun when you aren’t doing it on your own. I immediately signed up for the 75 Book Challenge Group on LibraryThing – which means I need to read 75 books this year. I have been a bit slow so far, but hopefully I will catch up…considering some of my fellow readers are already 10 or 15 books in. I then discovered a whole lot of others in other parts of the web including

The Pulitzer Project – read all 81 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Complete Booker – Read all 41 winners of the Man Booker Prize forFiction

The Triple 8 Challenge – Read 8 books from 8 categories over the year

This is just the start! Fortunately, you can read one book and have it count for more than one challenge, otherwise you wouldn’t do anything else but read.

So, despite the fact it is already February, I’m game…

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