Back when I was in grad school, my beloved weekend ritual, especially on those sunny and temperate autumn days that are one of Pittsburgh’s best features, was to sit at a sidewalk table at my favorite Squirrel Hill coffeehouse with a big cup of French Roast and read the New York Times Book Review Sunday supplement cover to cover. I read about new novels and biographies, about books on economics and politics and social criticism and art, about Amelia Earhart’s last flight and about Ernest Shackleton’s travails. I learned a lot; enjoyed it all. And I never bought or borrowed a single book that I read about.
No, that’s not true. I bought the Penguin edition of Jan Potoki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa a few months after the review came out, because I saw it in a bookstore and remembered reading about it. But that’s the only one that I can recall.
I didn’t read those book reviews to look for my next book, and I suspect the reviewers were not primarily interested in writing about the books that they had read. The books were jumping-off points for essays that were as much about the reviewers’ world views and positions about the broader subject matter as they were about the book authors’ world views and positions. A wonderful, if extreme, example of this is Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self, Gore Vidal’s “review” of Tennessee Williams’ memoirs. (If that link doesn’t work, you can find it in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, or in The Art of the Personal Essay, by Philip Lopate.)
Vidal mentions Williams’ book, of course, but the piece is really about Vidal, and his relationship over the years with Williams. We learn a lot about Vidal and Williams, about Truman Capote and several other literary and artistic luminaries, but at the end of the review I have absolutely no opinion about whether or not I actually want to read Williams’ memoirs. Though I am definitely of the opinion that I would not have wanted to attract Vidal’s attention. If he wrote that way about those he liked and admired, imagine if he disliked you…
I try to inject some of that quality of review-as-essay into my own reviews. I don’t think that the New York Times will be beating down my door any time soon, and sometimes, I really have nothing else to say except “I read this story and I liked it for these reasons, and I want to share it with you.” There is a place for the straightforward review, and I have found many new authors and many new books and stories from reading book bloggers and reviews from Amazon or Goodreads.
But it was never my intention to be a book blogger, per se. It’s more that I, too, have found that books and short stories, and sometimes movies, can inspire me to discover what I want to write about. They can provide a good framework from which to hang my ideas. Or, the book or story serves as an illustration, a metaphor, for something that I already planned to say.
One of my current favorite examples of this last point is the Kind Reader advice column at the Barnes & Noble Review. It is written by Jessa Crispin, of Bookslut.com fame. In her column, she comes to the rescue of the lonely and the distressed with prescriptions of literature: a book to inspire them, advise them, or at least to solace them, in their time of need. I’ve only been moved to track down a few of her prescriptions (of those that I haven’t already read), but I’m thoroughly addicted to the column. It’s to witness a virtuoso reader in action. Impressive.
What about you? Why do you read book reviews? And if you write reviews, why (and how) do you write them?