Book Reviewing

I began my writing life several decades ago as a book reviewer, but I’ve largely kicked the habit. It isn’t that reviewing isn’t important or interesting; it is a vital democratic conversation about books, journalism, ideas, and imagination. As a young aspiring writer I fell into it easily, maybe too easily. But after reviewing a few score volumes as I have tried to do -- carefully, generously, critically -- one tends to get a bit of genre fatigue. One tires of praising and of scolding. And having written a couple of books myself, and seen them (fairly and unfairly) praised and scolded, the urge to judge others diminishes even further. 

For these and other reasons, I haven’t been an active book reviewer in a while, other than occasional pieces for Dissent and a few other journals. It isn’t that I have become less judgmental as I’ve aged, although maybe I’m just a tad more tolerant of narrower ways of thinking than my own. I’ve simply lost the appetite, for the most part, for handing up indictments, encomiums, and balanced assessments. Maybe I need to go back to the best essay I know on the subject, George Orwell’s “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” for further inspiration.  It begins, as I recall, with the image of a shabby fellow in a dressing-gown, sitting in a dingy flat typing away while cigarette ashes gather around him, and it’s downhill from there.

I started this post thinking I would write about a particular book that I have enjoyed recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. A decade or two ago, I would have dived into a discussion of its flaws and merits, and of how (as a thoughtful reviewer said of a book of mine last year) the merits greatly outweigh the flaws. Somehow, that isn’t a line I feel I can quote in promoting my work. I’m not sure exactly where the flaws in Gladwell’s book lie.  I have recommended it to friends. 

I suspect it may be the kind of book that makes us think, once having read it, that we are smarter than we really are. And I’m not sure whether that’s a bad thing. Certainty is one of the things that goes down over time as cholesterol goes up. Somewhere around my 45th birthday they must have crossed.

If nothing else, Gladwell’s books represent a way of looking at the world -- empirically, sociologically, but not in positivist terms;  rather, aggressively seeking deep patterns -- that we all need to practice or at least be aware of. Finding meaning in the unobvious and the non-superficial is the beginning of sophisticated thinking. It is also a portal to intellectual radicalism, by the way, in the literal sense of “getting to the roots.” Marx was the master of this, finding hidden relationships and realities beneath the surface of capitalism.  See, if interested, Chapter 4 of The Sound Bite Society. But we don’t have to go there (if we don’t want) to appreciate the value of Gladwell’s insights and of the way of seeing the world they represent.  

I’m not sure I could further identify or define Gladwell’s methodology more precisely. His discussions across a wide range of topics are mostly compelling, and there is a unity in them -- a unity of the counterintuitive -- without the academic pretensions that weigh down some other books, including my own. But I am starting to sound like a reviewer, so I will say what reviewers never do: enough.

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