Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Guards the Guards #1

I'm Luke, and I've been working in this building for about five years (I worked for Northside before the infamous merger of 2009). While I'm in Iowa City, I'll be reviewing the reviewers of books, to give readers some idea of not just what's being said but who's saying it. I will be traveling to Europe in June and July, and I'll be talking about some of my favorite bookstores on the other side of the Atlantic.

I recently finished a sociology book that I simply could not stand. Why I bothered to finish it I don't know, since after the first fifty pages I had grown very weary of the author's arrogance in prescribing ways to, and I quote, "fix everything," but finish it I did. Since for the most part the people who recommend books to me have very good taste, I wasn't quite sure how I was going to deal with the bad aftertaste of this particular read. For starters, I called my brother, who had originally suggested the book, and let him know that I hated it, but that didn't lead to much except an awkward pause and a quick change of subject. So I decided to write a review on Amazon.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how exactly I was going to properly articulate why I disliked the book as much as I did. The problem was that there were a few fundamental problems with the book, on both a descriptive and prescriptive level, and so it was hard to develop a coherent criticism of the book in just a few paragraphs. There was the aforementioned arrogance of the author's solutions, but the author also generally engaged in contentiousness for contentiousness' sake, a pet peeve of mine, and exercised utter academic carelessness by rejecting any form of nuance whatsoever (e.g. ascribing linear models to certain patterns of human behavior in instances where exponential growth with an asymptote would be more accurate.) There was also a dash of ad-hom, in order to pre-empt some of the more reasonable critiques of his arguments. My personal favorite instance of this was when he asserted that anyone who did not believe in (or was even uncomfortable with) quantifying life in terms of economic value needed to "grow up".

I mention all this because I was prepared to put all this, and much more, in what I foresaw as a blistering attack on the author's reputation that would certainly ruin him (although in fact it would almost certainly have ended up as an incoherent rant with "12 of 37 people found this helpful" above it) when I noticed that Publisher's Weekly had already reviewed the book and said all of this. The review, without being combative, concisely deconstructed the abuse of logic the author had perpetrated. I couldn't have been happier with it.

Now one might perhaps reasonably assume that one good review would simply mean that there was one good reviewer on staff, so I tried something of an experiment. I had been hunting for another sociology book for some time (I was on a bit of a sociology binge at this point) and I decided to check out the Publishers Weekly had to say. The review was, again, concise, well written, and to the point. I read the book and agreed wholeheartedly with just about everything PW had to say. The only difference was that this book was quite good.

As it turned out these were two pretty exceptional examples. I don't always agree with what Publishers Weekly has to say, but this is of course not the point. Through every review of books that I've read, I've found that Publishers Weekly has given them a fair shake and, in a fairly short paragraph, managed to provide an insightful opinion of the book. At the very least, I get the sense that the reviewers actually read the books, which is more than I can say of some reviewers, but I'll save that for next week's entry.

To add one caveat-the website is not the easiest to navigate, and it can be difficult to access some of their archived material without having an account or subscription. With that said, one can generally find their reviews on Amazon, and reading the paragraph-long review might just save you from an excruciating couple hundred pages.

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