Book ’em Danno
Word-of-mouth and published reviews are good ways to find out about new books of interest. Word-of-mouth is probably the best because you can judge the passion and the source then decide if you’ll buy based on what you’ve heard. Increasingly, published book reviews are untrustworthy. Not because some editor chooses the wrong titles, but because reviewers don’t take the assignment seriously.
Here’s an example from last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, was clearly the pick of the week. It takes up a full page with a photo of the author and a four-column review. But the first quarter of the review is about the reviewer’s thoughts and experiences on cruelty among girls and mother-daughter relationships. This, I regret to say, has become all too typical. Rather than read the book and give a thorough report, reviewers believe tales from their own lives are more important. One recent offering in the London Review of Books didn’t even mention the book in question. The writer just blathered on about his own thesis.
In addition to these lazy reviews, book pages are now filled with Q&A pieces where authors answer inanities such as (a) Which writers would you invite for dinner? (b) What book made you cry? (c) What books are on your night table? In a New York Times interview along these lines earlier this month, the aforementioned Zadie Smith rattled off twenty books by her bedside. Imagine what a teetering pile that must be.
All of which is to say that book review sections have joined the rest of this crazy world: self-centred and not credible. Sadly, the more curated process has fallen into disrepute.