Reader’s Dilemma #34: The Trustworthyness (or Not) of Book Reviews

Reader’s Dilemma #1, of course, is “Many Books, Little Time” – which, inevitably – at least for many of us booklovers – leads to a semi-reluctant reliance on book reviews as a device for discerning what we shall risk reading, of all the possible things out there vying for our bookish attention.

In a brilliant explanation of how exasperating it can be to be overly-dependent on book critics, the editors of n+1 recently pointed out why we readers are so often disappointed with so many book reviews – and how book blurbs (often cropped from reviews) are more often misleading than helpful.

The problem, it seems, has a lot to do with how book reviews (and book blurbs) are usually written and the conditions under which people often write them.

The article is long, but certainly summarizes Reader’s Dilemma #34.

Read the n+1 “editorial.”

Found via an alert at Arts & Letters Daily

An Exploration of “Bookishness”

This blog does not often mention (or review) particular books – the blog is devoted to the pleasures of The Reading Life, rather than the merits or demerits of specific books – but sometimes An Exception Must Be Made.

A recent essay by Mark Athitakis in the Washington Post mentioned in passing a 2020 book by Jessica Pressman entitled Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Pressman’s introduction:

“. . . In the twentieth century, we no longer need books, physical codices, as reading devices. We have other means of reading, writing, communicating, and archiving. But that doesn’t mean some of us don’t want books. And that want manifests everywhere. Indeed, at the moment of the book’s foretold obsolescence because of digital technologies – around the turn of the millennium – we saw something surprising: the emergency of a creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifacts. . . . Cell-phone covers crafted to look like old books; decorative pillow printed with beloved book covers; earrings, rigns, and necklacs made of miniature codieces; store windows that use books as props; altered book sculptures exhibited in prestigious collections; and bookbound novels that revolve around a book as a central character. . . . Bookishness happens across countries, languages, media, and genres. This obsession with the materiality of books spans the spectrum from high art to absolute kitsch, and it signifies a culture grappling with its own increasing digitization.

The book has historically symbolized privacy, leisure, individualism, knowledge, and power. This means that the book has been the emblem for the very experiences that must be renegotiaed in a digital era: proximity, interiority, authenticity. So what happens when the books get digitized and bookish culture goes digital – when the word “book” may or may not refer to a material object? Bookishness signals a culture in transition but also provides a solution to a dilemma of the contemporary literary age: how to maintain a commitment to the nearness, attachment, and affiliation that the book traditionally represented now that the use value of the book has so radically altered. Books aren’t going anywhere, but they are being repurposed and reimagined. Our relationships to books are changing, and often the results are surprisinly poetic and generative.”

You can read Pressman’s entire introduction and read excerpts of reviews of Pressman’s book at Amazon. (Note: the book is available in hardback and in a digital edition.)

Another Look at the Pros and Cons of Ebooks

“Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.”

So sayeth Ian Bogost in a recent article in The Atlantic.

Read Bogost’s essay.

Some readers – both those who prefer ebooks to print books, or vice versa – may be interested in the mammoth study of the post-digital history of the publishing industry entitled Book Wars, by John B. Thompson.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent review, written by Jennifer Howard for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of Thompson’s book that’s relevant to the print vs. screen essays by Bogost:

“Despite their early boom, ebooks didn’t cannibalize the print market. Thompson uses data from the Association of American Publishers to show that ebooks plateaued at 23 to 24 percent of total book sales in the 2012–’14 period, then slipped to about 15 percent in 2017–’18. Print books, on the other hand, continue to account for the lion’s share of sales, with a low point of about 75 percent in 2012–’14, bouncing back to 80­ to 85 percent of total sales in 2015–’16. (Thompson’s study stops before the 2020–’21 pandemic, but print sales have for the most part been strong in the COVID-19 era.)”

The Neglected “To Be Read” List

Most booklovers have one: a list of books that you Fully Intend To Read One Day.

For some of us, this list is embarrassingly – or at least intimidatingly – long.

British biblioblogger Janet Jones recently characterized her own TBR list in what I thought was a particularly charming – and accurate way:

Are you sometimes surprised, dear reader, at what you actually discover when you start browsing among the peaks and vales of your very own TBR mountain? . . . Notable books from yesteryear’s “best of” and prize lists! Sales books that were so attractively priced they demanded to be taken home! Serendipitous books rewarding an afternoon’s ramble in musty old secondhand shops and elbowing others at crowded library book sales! Impulse books (this category speaks for itself) and books acquired with an eye to impressing your visitors! Books that you were hot to read after a particularly glowing review by one of you naughty bloggers (names are unnecessary — you know who you are) but that you never actually read because you lost interest before your hard-to-locate copy arrived! “Mystery” books whose reasons for being on your shelves is now a conundrum that will never be solved!

If you like Jones; writing style, or are curious about what she’s been reading lately, you can find her blog here.

Can Books “Ruin Your Life”?

Well, maybe.

Here’s the final paragraph in an excellent blogpost by someone recounting his discouraging attempt to get rid of the hundreds of books he’d stored for years in his cousin’s attic:

There is a very real sense in which [books] ruined my life. At twenty-five I believed that by absorbing their contents —or, short of that, by hauling them around with me from place to place— they would somehow redeem me. At forty-five I found myself still unredeemed, worrying about money in a way I never imagined possible, angry at the false advertising by which mere learning is said to lead to happiness. These books destined me to an unbalanced life, like a poorly packed U-Haul that leans too far to one side; like a cheap Ikea particle-board bookshelf, bought only as a temporary and partial solution, sagging under the weight of its books.

Justin E.H. Smith’s entire blogpost is well-written, thought-provoking, and sobering. Even booklovers whose collections aren’t so large as to require remote storage will relate to Smith’s mixed feelings about how he now feels after a lifetime of accumulating books.

A hat-tip to “Damian,” who on July 24, 2021 provided a link to Smith’s blogpost at his own blog, “A Sunday of Liberty” (previously “Obiter Scripta”). “Damian’s” blog is so consistently interesting that I make sure I periodically catch up on everything he’s recently posted.