Thoughts on reviewing books
Published June 13, 2020
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With the coronavirus shortening my work commute into a walk down the hall, I’ve been able to read more in the mornings. Now that I’ve been gifted more time in the day, I am finishing about a book a week (I’m privileged to have at least an hour a day for reading, and that time quickly adds up). It has been amazing to return to my teenage reading habits when my parents feigned exasperation at my perpetual nose-in-book lifestyle - “is that kid reading again?”. In these tumultuous times, books have also been a welcome respite (well-documented positive effects of reading on mental well-being probably don’t hurt).
Reading more, I couldn’t help but notice book reviews everywhere. Inspired, I wrote a few, but found myself asking what I wanted to get out of the creative energy I was channeling into them (after all, I’m not a professional book-review-writer and my time is limited). In order to think clearly about the topic, I sought inspiration in the work of other writers.
How do other writers approach book reviews?
With the question “how should I write about what I’ve been reading?” in mind, I started compiling examples of book reviews and categorizing them by style:
- Persuasive reviews: I bucket reviews like those from the NYTimes into this category. Even though the author of the inevitably informs you about the book’s content, they’re advocating that their readers purchase the book (or don’t purchase the book in some case). Frequently the review also gives a background on the book’s literary lineage.
- Summary reviews: Products like Blinkist or Nat Eliason’s book reviews fall into this category. I think there’s a place for summarization-style reviews of non-fiction “branch books” - if one were to imagine knowledge as a tree, “branch books” typically cover a single topic on the edge of the tree, rather than attempting to be a wide-reaching, foundational tome of a subject area.
- Thematic reviews: The New York Review of Books often combines discussion of several books into a general overview of a topic. This approach is well-suited to academics or subject-matter experts who have the time (and intellectual stamina!) to read a variety of books connected to a common thread.
- Deep-dive reviews: Slate Star Codex was (while I was writing this, the takedown of the blog happened) an example of this category, with opinionated book reviews that form connections between the author’s well-formed thoughts and the subject matter at hand. They’re often witty and summarize the content as needed while weaving it into a story.
With a general overview of possible styles loaded into my memory, I switched to thinking about what I was hoping to get out of the process.
What do I want to get out of book reviews?
After consuming diverse, different review styles, I realized that I could reduce my motivation for reviewing books to two goals: retention of what I learned (in the case of non-fiction) books and writing something other people enjoy reading.
Thankfully there is a large body of knowledge about how to accomplish the first goal using spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition is also called SRS, and there are many sources about how to use the system to increase retention:
- Rob Heaton’s blog post on How to read
- Augmenting long term memory discusses using Anki for deep reviews
- A (sic) Hahvahd Business Review article about retention and understanding
Unfortunately, making book reviews enjoyable for other people is a more difficult problem, and the best path is being inspired by others. If you find a great review send it my way!