Book reviews in the age of the internet

A book review in the age of the internet is very different from its pre-net predecessors, though it may look superficially the same. A conversation with science blogger Bora Zivkovic, as he wrestled with deciding about books to review, prompted me to write these thoughts down.

Back in the day, before it was easy to trivially easy to search for reviews, a reader depended on their local paper or favorite magazine. So each each newspaper or magazine would cover the same books and movies. Each review would summarize the book for the reader. Readers relied on their reviewer, and the reviewer in turn strove to be an authoritative voice and “tastemaker”, helping readers choose and shaping the criteria for choice.

The old constraints that shaped the genre are gone. In the age of the internet, it is trivially easy to search for reviews. So there is less need for an basic summary of popular books – the reader can find it on Amazon. When a reader can find multiple reviews from multiple perspectives with an easy search, the old authoritative tone of voice sounds pretentious.

So, to review books in the age of the internet you need to consider: what in particular do you have to add to the reviews the reader can already find. Why do you think the work is good, based on your own expertise or perspective, what did you learn from it, why do you think your readers might or might not like it, based on your knowledge and assumptions of your audience.

Now, a book review that includes too much of the perspective of the reviewer can turn into a personal essay that takes a book as its starting point, or a meditation on the subject that says more about the book the reviewer would prefer to be written than the book that she read. These essays may be worth writing, but an essay that tells the reader more about the reviewer than the book is not a book review. The challenge is to include enough of one’s own perspective to make the review interesting and distinctive, while keeping it mostly about the book.

Another difference is timeliness – reviews on the internet don’t need to be about new things. Before good search engines, reviewers focused on things that were new, and there’s still value in timely discussion of current topics. The internet makes it easy to find discussion of books that aren’t new, and so rewards writing about them also. A review of an older book can add context since the book was written, and reevaluate what it sounds like now than earlier. Summary and recommendations are more important for older books than newer books, since the information is harder to find, and a reader needs reasons other than currency to read the book.

BoraZ, in fact, uses these principles in a review of Bonobo Handshake, a book by Vanessa Woods, about the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, the two closest primate cousins to humans. The summary neatly analyzes the multi-threaded structure of the book, links to related sources on competition and cooperation, and puts the genetic kinship of humans, chimps, and bonobos in the context of an argument against genetic determinism. The review also touches on the reviewer’s friendship with the writer, and personal background to describe the joy of reading books that teach you about the world and get you engaged in subjects you didn’t know before. The review tells the reader about the book, what’s good about it, why they might like it, from the professional and personal point of view of the writer. It’s a strong example of a good book review in the age of the internet.

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