Newspaper article International New York Times

Should Book Reviewing Be Considered a Public Service, or an Art?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Should Book Reviewing Be Considered a Public Service, or an Art?

Article excerpt

In the Internet era, writers often feel pressured to perform rather than inform.

In the Internet era, writers often feel pressured to perform rather than inform.

The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which I found on a crowded, dusty bookshelf in the corner of my bedroom, defines the word "service" as follows: "Employment in work for another, esp. for a government." Also: "Work done for others as an occupation." That same dictionary on the word "art": "Creative or imaginative activity, esp. the expressive arrangement of elements within a medium." And: "Works, such as painting or poetry, resulting from such activity."

The American Heritage definitions only reinforce my feeling that book reviews, as practiced professionally today -- which is to say, for money and for an audience -- are more public service than art. For one thing, book reviews are written to be read: They are work done for others' enjoyment and edification; unlike some art, they are meant to inform an audience, not perform for one, and they usually follow a predictable pattern: name of book, summary of what book is about, followed by a competent, well-argued opinion as to whether the book's author achieved his or her aims.

This is not to suggest that book reviews cannot incorporate a measure of artistry. Any type of criticism, in the hands of someone skilled, imaginative and courageous, can indulge in and experiment with form as much as function. But I'd argue that a majority of the reading public doesn't necessarily benefit from the sorts of reviews for which artistry is the point: Books cost money, sometimes a lot of it, and they also require a significant investment of time and concentration. I think it's fair to say that most readers of general- interest book reviews in general-interest publications look to them to provide entertainingly but clearly stated answers to a few, fairly simple questions: (1) Is a book good? (2) Is a book good or interesting enough to justify buying it? …

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