Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The philosophy of the book review

An intersting article in the NY Times book section describes a battle between two philosophers over a book review. You see, one philosopher really flamed the other's book in a journal. And I mean flamed.

According to the article, he called the book, "painful to read, poorly thought out and uninformed.” And he said that the review as printed was actually toned down after his editors asked him to make it less critical. Yikes!

Since philosophers are involved, of course they are thinking deeply about the controversy, wondering, What is the meaning of life? Oops. I mean, What is the meaning of the book review? :) The article only touches briefly on the question of whether such scathing reviews should be published. But I think it's an interesting
one for writers to discuss. What do you think?

I think that of course the reviewer's opinion should be front and center--that's what they're getting paid for. But I also think that reviewers and editors should really think carefully about what kinds of books they are assigned. In this case, the philosophers were from totally different schools of thought. Did that influence the reviewer's opinion of the book? Who knows. But it's something to consider.

I remember a professor of mine at Harvard got a letter to the editor published in the Times responding to a Michiko Kakutani review. In it, she had slammed a book by a friend of my prof's. I forget the specifics, but the book was of a genre that Kakutani always slams, so my prof suggested that maybe someone with a more open mind to that type of book should've reviewed it.

Something to ponder... Let me know your thoughts! Best Blogger Tips


TI said...

That is hilarious! The thing is, philosophers flame each other all the time. That's the way of the discipline. And the flamee is one of the most pompous philosophers out there. I heard him speak a couple of years ago and just about walked out because his talk was so bad and he was so offensive -- like, really old school, using examples like "let's say you're beating your wife" and that sort of thing. I bet his book is as bad as the flamer says it is.

Writer bug said...

OMG! That example is crazy! Who would say that kind of thing? And that's interesting re: philosophers as being so vituperative!

Repeater said...

Well, as you know, I was working on some book reviews myself, and from what I learned, it's never wise to be too inflammatory-- it just seems in bad taste. You can not like something and be gentle about it. And if it's really not to your liking, someone else should write the review.
Wow, ti, crazy stuff going on in your philosophical world!

RB said...

I think this goes back to discussions we've had here--and elsewhere--about one person's opinion being one person's opinion. In my writing group, I preface my comments about certain genres I don't read (and not because I don't necessarily like the genre...I just don't read a lot of work in the genre) with "keep in mind that I don't have a ton of experience critiquing [this genre] but here are my thoughts..."

The teacher in me wants to believe that we can find something good in everything, but that's probably too Pollyanna-ish...and it sounds as if the flamee in the example above really deserved the public mocking...although I suspect this person might get off on it (considering the types of "examples" he uses during talks...sheesh). Bug, I need to go look up vituperative now...great word! :)