The Democrat-Gazette published today my review of What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, Andras Szanto, editor. I was so excited by this book, even though it was disappointing, that I wrote three Bricks referring to George Orwell. Two of them were on revelations about today from his 1949 novel 1984, one considering torture and the other more or less on creationism. The third provided an opportunity to apply Orwell’s prescient opinion on the military-industry complex, that war is good for everyone.
Full-fledged book reviews are tough to write well. Surprisingly they have not gotten easier. The difficulty here was of direction. The fair way is to give a good paragraph on most if not all of the essays it contained. That’s the point, right, for a collection, to review the points of view? This book had 18 essays, that’s 18 paragraphs, and what’s published today is only 22. Doesn’t sound like much, but my review as published is almost too long by newspaper standards. In fact, it has been cut by about a third (I was gratified that my permission was requested and that the deletions sound) — most of which comprised thoughts on individual pieces.
The other way to review a book like this is to provide an overview: What is the book about overall and to what extent does it succeed. Interspersed during those two discussions is background material. If I had the space the New York Review of Books allots, I could have gotten it all in. It’s tempting to publish the deletions here: how each of the main essays struck me, plus a too-personal recollection of 1984’s impact on me as a young teen. I chose overview, with the item-by-item the concluding section, which made it clearly excisable.
I see reviews of anything, movies and albums and the rest, as a consumer service first then entertainment. However, a number of critics see what they do as a literary genre. Bully. Bet they wouldn’t interrupt sound reasoning with an original nursery rhyme:
Georgie Porgie, Porgy and Bess,
Hated Big Brother, Oh what a mess.
Porgy decides to New York he’ll blow,
Such tales “Ain’t Necessarily So.“
Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock
A write-up should advise the reader whether they should read the book, see the show or listen to the CD. That requires summary and analysis. Entertainment comes in when the reader enjoys the piece.
Confession: When I read book reviews — and this does not apply to any other form — I also want to come away with enough knowledge that I do not have to read the book. Sometimes, I will click from an online write-up to the library and put the book on reserve because it sounds like something I want to spend many hours with. The rest of the time the knowledge gained just from the summary is enough to use and even to share. Yes, this applies only to non-fiction. It’s how I got so smart. You can’t grasp from a squib, however, the artistry of a short-story or poetry collection or a novel — just if the literature is to your taste or, better, worth expanding your interests to. Which is the point. –30–