Saturday, 26 April 2008

Do you use fan and professional reviews to choose books?

Well confession time, I have RSS feeds to various review pages of UK and US national papers and magazines( The Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, London Review of Books, New York Review of books,) I also belong to various book swap sites such as Bookmooch, and ReaditSwapit that have book reviews in their Forums and RSS feed them. Finally I also have RSS feeds to 50 book challenge and email alerts from Goodreads.

So daily scan( yes daily and several times a day...who mentioned OCD?) for any reviews of books mostly to alert me to books that I have missed that I would like. If it’s a fan review I quickly get a sense if I would like the book sometimes from why they didn't like it!! Once a book has caught my attention I will go on to Amazon, Librarything and Goodreads to see what the community consensus is. Scanning the reviews soon gives you an idea of how well the book matches the ambition and skills of the writer.

Yes what type of review tips the balance for you? It has to be said that a lot of the fan reviews are too often the book page blurb and a paragraph on why I like/don't like it. Even worse are the reviews on some sites that are a list of titles and one liners why I like/don't like it. On the other hand, too many of the professional reviews are on the other side of the camp in that the writer shows how much they know about the subject or theme of the book but you also struggle to know if the book is any good.

So the ideal review for me puts the book in to context...what genre, what traditions are they writing in, what's interesting about the author and this book. Secondly, I like to see an outline about the plot, characters, factual content etc so I can get a sense of what the author is trying to do. Thirdly, in the light of the first two factors, a review of how the author has managed to make it work in terms of characterisations, styles, plot credibility etc

I supposed it’s akin to a good review of say of a play by Shakespeare. I am told what's the Director's interpretation is and the past history of interpretations as well as what this means for the choice of set, costume, period, casting, lighting, staging etc. And then its discussed how successful this was and why. Here as in the book review I want to read a critical analysis that illuminates why the play/book works/doesn’t work.

Yes you say but this is still only one persons view but by knowing the assumptions and perspective of this reviewer( this one likes experimental, cutting edge but this one low brow easy reads) you can quickly spot if you are on the same wavelength. I also love the notion of aggregating the responses of reviewers, I don't think we have a booksite that is akin to the that collates all the film reviews and gives you the reader a community consensus. The Sunday papers sometimes do a pick of the critics which gives you the consensus on a book, or film. In books its more likely to be the readers rather then critics consensus that is aggregated. For example like Goodreads and Library aggregate the ratings. As do the Amazon sites with the possibility of manipulation (see this link for what dirty tricks may lie behind a books rating but we don't have a poll of the polls.

And what do you do with all these reviews you may ask? Well I wishlist all the books that catch my eye on to my book swap sites and then wait until they pop up free. Well that's the theory, in practise I also buy some as well...oh and of course at some time read them!

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