When Words Collide

Beyond the Limits of the Online Book Review

The Collision, by ashley.adcox, with Creative Commons licenceCollisions release energy in unexpected directions, sending us off to places we might never have fully explored. When I wrote my post banging against the limits of the contemporary book review last week I mentioned online efforts as a matter of course, not expecting to think more about them as a special case. But I now realise they are – they not only capture impressions of literature, but also mark the spot where attention and interest separate.

Not long after I completed the post I noticed that John Quiggin had commented on the Prospect article by William Skidelsky that inspired my own ruminations, picking out its two passing references to blogs. Fair enough; Skidelsky takes an unsubstantiated potshot at blogs that dare to review books, and in doing so becomes the sort of snobbish critic he otherwise derides. But Quiggin made no other attempt to engage the article, and the comment thread on his post suggests that no-one else in the discussion had bothered to read Skidelsky’s piece at all.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body, by dhammza, with creative commons licenceThis reinforces the point I made yesterday – in the Cyber Age impatience breeds contempt. We are quick to comment but slow to check, or maybe don’t even check at all. Responding to my post in a more thoughtful manner, Cliff Burns from Beautiful Desolation observed that although the ‘thumbs up’ culture prevails in online reviews, a couple of sites are worthy of note: Popmatters and Book Forum, the online presence of a review magazine. And to that I should add Cliff’s blog itself.

Back in the fast lane, what draws together the snappish defence of blogs and the culture of fandom behind many of the book reviews they issue is the way in which we read online, and how that forces us to think. Very few people ever read a webpage with anything near the scrutiny they reserve for novels, or more often the print media. At a time when the bullet point rules, we look for factlets in reportage or highlights in the lesser written arts. And we think in snippets, which is a far cry from the contemplation needed to absorb a thoughtful book review.

This reminds me of something Margery Cuyler wrote in ForeWord last year about the vogue for comical fractured fairytales rather than the traditional versions – they miss the deeper meaning and “skim the surface of experience”.

Is this what we achieve in reading online reviews? Do they – in their brevity, in their similarity to the book reports we suffered through at school – drag us away from experiencing literature lovingly refashioned, gifted to us secondhand?

To take a journey, by dhammza, with Creative Commons licenceThese are questions I can’t yet answer, but I intend to try. They’re the reason I persist with my own microreviews, probing the limits of what can be written meaningfully about literature online. If you have any thoughts on the matter, please let me know. I’ll also be interested in learning about any blogs that allay my concerns, or disprove my allegations. And I’ll be searching for them myself.

As always, I find myself caught between the comfort of certainty and the allure of indecision in this truly puzzling world.

4 Responses to When Words Collide

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    It’s funny, Mike, I’ve heard numerous complaints about book review pages of newspapers being downsized or disappearing altogether and complaints from people who don’t know where to go to get good credible reviews. And yet when I print book reviews on my blog, as I’ve just done recently, my numbers drop precipitously. People would rather read a few quick paragraphs than a detailed critique of a particular work. Our TV/infotainment culture has led to brains that lack attention spans, the ability to focus for longer than a minute or two. “Thumbs up” or “Thumbs down” is easy, quick, minimum processing required. Better yet, let’s get rid of text altogether and just use the handy “thumbs” icon. I worry about what the future brings with it, the kind of society our kids will live in…

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Yes, I see your point, and as I mentioned on your blog agree that it’s a difficult situation. I have a feeling that we can balance the video and online soundbite culture against the contemplative reading culture my grandparents passed on to me, but don’t have an immediate solution to the problem. I’m looking for it, which is a start, and your counterpoints should help me along!

  3. John Quiggin says:

    Crooked Timber has run a string of book review seminars that are (in my admittedly biased opinion) significantly better than the average newspaper book review. I’ve also used my own blog to run preliminary versions of book reviews, then used the comments to improve them for publication in newspapers. I’ve seen a lot of useful commentary on books on other blogs as well – Brad DeLong’s for example.

    So, to spell it out, I think Skidelsky’s claims are generalizations based on stereotypes about blogs, presented in exactly the manner he claims to deplore. Given the lack of any supporting argument, I don’t see how I could have engaged with the article further, as you suggest.

  4. Mike Poole says:

    John, thanks very much for your comments. I’ve both learned something and become a little chastened, especially about failing to mention Crooked Timber’s book review events, parts of which I’ve read before (the Freakonomics entries). I’m not as keen on Brad DeLong’s reviews (although that’s hardly defensible, and something I should think more about), even though I do enjoy reading his blog in general.

    I was going to write a longer reply here, covering a little more of Skidelsky’s article, your view of it and my further thoughts, but I began to mention aspects of the situation that would be more advantageously expressed in a post. I’ll do that later tonight. In the meantime, thanks again – you’ve helped me to develop my thinking more carefully.

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