If the snippets of judgments, opinions and criticism that are given, often orally [in letters, over messenger apps, Facebook groups etc.], while recommending a book to a friend, don’t constitute the quasi-intellectual labour of reviewing a book or a work of literature, then, I, insofar as my memory permits, do not recall endeavouring my self into this brilliant labour. I do not know what elevates a review to an essay, or what relegates it to a mere opinion, or what gives it the air of a critique or what leads it to just stay what it is meant to be – a review.
I have often meditated upon this subject. The subject of reviewing a book. This exercise has always attracted me, has fascinated me and has given rise to such temptations where one feels helplessly helpless because of lack of skill in indulging in such a bravado. To me reviewing a book is as fascinating as skydiving. Not that I had dreams of authors or publishers calling me to their book releases, or of editors of famous newspapers and magazines, from around the world, texting me to write a review for a book, to be published in their columns and bytes, but I have had a fair and balanced fascination for this particular pursuit, where I have fantasised that my reviews are read with great interest, not because someone wants to buy a book but because they admire my style of writing the review, the way of judging a book, my language of criticism, or my attempts at providing a new stream of arguments, against or supporting, the work at hand.
I have often read reviews of the books that I don’t usually read or end up reading. The purchase of a book, after reading a review, for me, is mostly coincidental, however reading multiple reviews, after I have read a book, is a must-do exercise for me. My book selection is driven by subject matter, and recently by “lists” such as “Top 100 greatest fictions”. However, this hasn’t made me stranger to book reviews. I do read reviews of the books that I read after I am finished reading with them, since this is a crucial exercise for me, for I want to know different point of views on the language, experience, story, and style of the book. This exercise is all the more important when one reads a non-fictional subject, since the authors cannot be unbiased in their review or recording of history, biographies, economics, politics, war, military conflicts, science, religion, philosophy and all other non-fictional human experiences, hence it is crucial to read multiple reviews after you have read a book on such a subject. In this era of tailored information, the information that is tailored to one’s search queries on search engines or social networks, or the kind of emails that one receives or news one reads, a conscious effort must be made to tear through the flimsy cushion of favourable opinions and analysis, and to stare into the opposing point of views and arguments, or else one faces a risk of living in a closed dark box during all of their existence.
I have read reviews (literary criticism, to be particular) by the great authors, and their language and style of criticising a work or praising it has always mesmerised me. I read reviews as an attempt to see beyond the obvious, to understand a different take or a similar take on different grounds, or similar take on similar grounds with similar justifications but conveyed in an elegant prose. Therefore, reviewing a book, for me, is a quasi-intellectual exercise. It feeds on another person’s greater adventures and meditations, but it is not without one’s own meditations and fair share of cognitive labour. I prefer book reviews published in literary magazines and some exceptional political and economics magazines and newspapers such as The Spectator, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sunday Guardian and The Economist. Some reviews published in Indian magazines or periodic journals have also been exceptional. It must not come as a surprise that reviews published by many readers on Amazon are scholarly, incisive and full of opportunities for learning.
I once heard that reviewers are the people who themselves couldn’t or can’t write books. I disagree. Every human being has a cognitive capacity to support or discredit any idea, based purely on personal anecdotes, evidences or experience. Without reviewers, the book publishing will become a one-sided conversation where the author talks to his/her readers. The reviewers make this conversation equal, and the good reviewers make this conversation scholarly, or amusing or full of learning. If the idea that an author’s idea, argument, experience, or evidence can only be refuted by an equally voluminous book, then perhaps the wrong ideas and experiences will enjoy far greater half-life in public than they do now.
Therefore, realising the significance of book reviews, and myself being a fan of book reviews for quite long now, I now feel that I too should try my hands at reviewing books and further the cause of learning for the people who happen to stumble upon my blog, even if occasionally, and of course, also for my own records.