As printing continues its lateral swing into a parallel digital existence, a number of high profile writers are worriedly tracing the demise of traditional book reviews. I’m talking about either the reduction of book review sections in newspapers and magazines or the section’s wholesale removal. Haven’t heard about it? You can check out Motoko Rich’s article Are Book Reviewers Out of Print? from the New York Times, David Kipen’s Last exit to book land for Salon, or Josh Getlin’s Battle of the Book Reviews for the Los Angeles Times. These are the most talked and blogged about pieces but hardly the only ones lamenting the continued prominence of online book discussion and commentary.
There are a fair number of influencing factors, though personally I wonder how much corporate media homogenization is to blame, for both promoting a watered-down focus on potential best sellers coupled with the loss of newspaper jobs for community level writers with a feel for what’s of local interest. By and large, book review blogs have no investment in the traditional publishing mainstream (Harry Potter aside), which only aggravates ingrained publishing models. Those in online communities who are discovering a home for their particular interests are people who are peeling off heavy layers of clothing after a long, cold winter of lowest-common denominator hit-making; their enthusiasm is blossoming anew in direct sunlight, and in England at least people are actually reading more.
Perhaps the shift to book review blogging reflects a freedom to express one’s opinion, immediately and publicly, a potent and liberating phenomenon available to more people than ever before. All things in balance, as it were. The passive nature of consumption encouraged by contemporary corporate and marketing interests could not last. I think the fear over a loss of concentrated outlets for book reviews is misplaced. To me it is akin to the shift from sumptuous full page comic illustrative art in turn-of-the-century newspapers to the maniacally diminutive spaces allotted comic artists from the sixties onward. (Just read the introductory essays by Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, to his collected works, especially the ones from his Tenth Anniversary Book, for a detailed insider’s view)
Comic art subsequently bought a new home, and morphed into an enormous canon of illustrated novels, graphic novels, zines, poster art and comic book collections. In fact, the web has made the daily publication of comics as accessible as it ever was in the golden age of newspapers, with no need to alter format or inspiration to accommodate for limited space.
Recently I have come across several wonderful resources, blogs and links for web authors & book reviewers which demonstrate some of the beauty of just one small flowering digital community. Certainly there are the high-profile sites such as Syntax of Things, Bookslut, Book Lust, SmallPress Blog, et al, but I want to encourage you to look at some of the smaller contenders.
One of the best things about blogs is the ever-present blogroll, often found on either side of the main body of content. Often I can spend hours just trolling the links, finding spectacular diamonds buried deep, outside of my normal but limited online feeds & habits. I can remember, back in the days of FTP and BBSs, the difficulty of searching for content without prior knowledge. Much more insular, and in its own way much more fringe and exciting, since effectively knowledge meant membership in a subterranean society, but limited for those very same reasons. Damn, I loved being part of it back in the day. Yet what we have today is so much more lastingly rewarding, since with more participation and content naturally emerges an explosion of diversity and representation, meaning more likelihood of discovering something of direct interest no matter how focused or specialized the interest is. What I’m trying to say the long way round is: embrace & respect the blogroll.
Alright, here are some review sites —
LotusReads is my favorite recent find, a serendipitous click from an unrelated search. She is a Canadian book-fiend who is, since May 2005, writing passionate and personal reviews of contemporary literature and who has an extensive & very useful blogroll. Among the personal review blogs she has a nice section on literary havens that links to useful networks for writers of every stripe.
Lost in Translation is the blog of a South African reader living in England, who, since February 2006, has been writing about older and contemporary African literature. The post from Monday, November 20 2006 is a mini education for me; out of 14 African authors I only recognize 2, and that’s after being a voracious book-selling reader, with a penchant for reading publisher catalogs, for about 10 years.
Books For Breakfast Books For Dinner might be your poison if you want to read ” A blog about books. And cocktails. Because nothing is more literary than alcoholism.” Kristin Dodge read 150 books last year, and this year aims to “tackle Time’s Top 100, ALA’s Top 100, the top 10 books that are banned in 2006/2007, and 5 books about different religions.” Avoid her blog only if you don’t want to be an enabler. (Incidentally her blog is also rated G, as mine was a few weeks ago, even with a reference to marijuana milkshakes. Go figure.)
And then there’s Giornale Nuovo… mr. h’s exploration of arcane and decadently illustrated nooks in the bibliophiles’ world is dizzying, with a blogroll that is teetering on the razor’s edge of gnostic revelation.
So hopefully this is a good starting point for exploration, and I guarantee that each site could whittle away hours of time that you thought you couldn’t spare.
A counterpart to all of these artful miniatures in blog form is the desire to create and participate. So I will end by letting you in on a little secret of mine, Matt Huggin’s 55 Essential Articles Every Serious Blogger Should Read. With articles grouped under categories such as Building Meaningful Content, Increasing Traffic & Retaining Readers, and Building a Community there is certainly something for everyone, from the anxious neophyte to the seasoned know-it-all. (His links focus a little too often on the economic benefits of blogging for my tastes, but I provide the link anyhow, out of recognition that pairing with advertisers and businesses is a concern of many bloggers out there) I don’t know about you, but I definitely have come across too many blogs that haven’t read John Chow’s 10 Blogging Mistakes to Avoid, who, with a little dedication and consideration, could Bring [Their] A-game to Write for Blogs.
Please, mourners of the book review, it isn’t quite time to build an ossuary of manuscripts. An historical genealogy of media have demonstrated a wily tenacity and capacity for transformation of form without losing even a gram of soul in translation. So my advice is either back off, or throw your hat in the ring.
Please don’t try to reach me at home tomorrow night, I’ll be reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.