27 July 2003

On the theory that those who do not know history are truly doomed to repeat it, and that those who delude themselves about history won't be even that successful, I took a spin around a few of the major sources of book reviews lately. Was I ever sorry I did. I had hoped to see some of what books on history (and related serious nonfictional themse) are broadly available to a broad audience, but instead was treated to the usual nonsense that, with very few exceptions, allows virtually no dissent from previously established narrative forms and viewpoints.

   This is not really the fault of the book reviewers, or the book review publications. The Washington Post's Sunday Book World supplement—which in many sense has overtaken the Sunday New York Times Book Review in quality and breadth of coverage, if not in reputation—made a valiant effort this week to cover books on history. Well-considered reviews of Eric Hobsbawm's memoir of a leftist historian's experience, Donald Kelley's dense graduate-level disposition on the history of historiography, and the astoundingly ignorant Ann Coulter's treatment of American "liberals" as wearers of scarlet letters still fail to do two things that every book review should do.

   The first of these failures is most apparent in the last of the reviews. Given that Sturgeon was an optimist—more than 90% of everything is crap—a book review needs to tell the reader why he or she should care, particularly when the review is a negative one or of an unfamiliar area. It is easily understandable why Coulter's book, and perhaps to an even greater extent Bruce's book, are objectively "bad"; if nothing else, they are intellectually dishonest. The review makes this much clear, even if it never uses that term. The shortcoming of the review is in its failure to place its subjects in any context other than a fluffy comparison to a book from the "opposite" political wing, in a manner in which one cannot readily determine whether the reviewer even approves of that other book. This is not something that can be left to "showing," as the whole point of reviewing books should be to give readers guidance on how to spend their limited time and money, presumably from someone whose knowledge of the subject matter is greater than that of the average bear.

   The second failure is perhaps more subtle, and in the long run somewhat more dangerous. It is not really the reviewers' fault, though; it is the fault of the editors of the book review. Both Hobsbawm's and Kelley's books were reviewed by people clearly predisposed to like the books on the basis of more than passing familiarity with their works, their authors, or both. In serious nonfiction, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get more than three or four degress of separation away from any moderately prominent author when assigning reviews. The difficulty is that the editor did not insist upon disclosure of the relationship, or at least did not print it. In these particular instances, I do not believe that it harmed the reviews. Other times, such as the notorious incident in which another publication allowed a prominent romance novelist to review (or, rather, trash) romance novels penned by one of her competitors under several different names without disclosing that the two were presently involved in a lawsuit alleging plagiarism, it does.

   Together, these point out a major problem with book reviewing today. Unless one really can tell a book by its cover, even the most uncritical (and therefore least helpful) reviewer is going to come across a significant proportion of books that he or she cannot recommend positively. This issue of Book World is unusual in that it contains a significantly negative review. The "good news only here" source of book reviews is not worth much. If there is one thing that publishing does not need any more of, it is sycophancy.