Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Reviews : How and Why

Last week, quite by chance, I picked up a collection of essays by A.C. Grayling. Why? I've never even heard of the fellow, but the title, The Reason of Things : living with philosophy, was intriguing. Plus, it was only a buck.

So: A.C. Grayling seems to be a British philosopher and Academic Extraordinaire. He was also a Booker judge in 2003. He writes a weekly column for the Times Saturday review, of which this book appears to be a collection. Not even having looked at the table of contents (okay, it was an impulse buy) I was pleasantly surprised to open it at random to an essay entitled Reading and Reviewing. Whew, I felt some relief that it had been a loonie well spent! Actually, and seriously, it was a fascinating essay, with many statements relevant to those of us slogging away on our literary-fixated blogs. I thought I would just share a couple that I found thought-provoking. Something to ponder, at least!

Cynics ascribe the popularity of book reviews to the laziness of those who want to know about new books without the fatigue of reading them, perhaps in order to appear knowledgeable at cocktail parties. No doubt there are such folk; but it is a safe bet that book reviews are popular for at least two dozen reasons besides, not least among them being -- odd as it may seem -- a genuine interest in books. ...
Still, a certain suspicion attaches to the enterprise of reviewing, as if it is neither quite a serious nor quite a worthy endeavour -- definitely subordinate to the main task, frequently cheap in the doing and the result, and invariably parasitic, a "louse on the locks of literature", in Tennyson's phrase.

Honesty is the key. One can praise a book because one likes it, but one can not dispraise it because one dislikes it -- still less if, merely, one dislikes its author -- unless one gives reasons, and makes a case for saying it is bad.... From all points of view a book does best to get mixed reviews, for then the reviews do not stand in any reader's way.

Reading reviews is a pragmatic exercise for the majority of those who do it. Browsers of book pages can be turned into buyers by a reviewer's enthusiasm, which is often what readers themselves hope will happen. Writing reviews might also, for some, be a pragmatic exercise; in the past aspiring novelists eked a living thereby, though it is hard to see anyone doing it now. But for others it is a pleasure, even a passion and a delight. Part of the reason is that reviewing is highly educative. It makes one read far more, and far more widely, than is usual even among bibliophiles. And one does it with the special watchful intent required by the duty to engage and respond, to make a judgement and a case for that judgement.


  1. Extremely interesting and provocative posting.
    I have often looked at the [discounted and remaindered] works of A.C. Grayling here and there... wondered what he was about.
    His ostentatiously titled The Meaning Of Things and whatnot.
    Thank you for telling me a bit about him.
    -- Cip

  2. I like the last point about how educative writing reviews can be -- I think it does make a person a better reader.

  3. Cipriano - the author photo nearly put me off...but I'm glad I persevered, just for this essay!

    Dorothy - I have found that since I began reading with a view to making some kind of judgement or even just a comment, I have been paying more attention. I'd lost that habit when I left university, and I've enjoyed recovering it.


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