One of the more amusing, at least by my standards of humor, episodes of the classic sitcom Seinfeld featured the attempt by Kramer to sell a coffee table book that also doubled as a coffee table. While people may have laughed about this idea, it is one that actually exists, and one can buy such things off of Amazon if one has the interest. As I have no room for a coffee table, this is not something I would want for myself, but it does express a phenomenon that I view as interesting but also a bit puzzling when it comes to books. We like our jokes to be meta, at least sometimes (at least I do), but this is not always the case when one is dealing with actual books, as we might not appreciate the way that books can often curve in on themselves in an endless cycle. For example, I once reviewed a short book by the late Jewish scholar Jacob Lauterbach that was itself a review of another book by a Jewish scholar who had died that was itself a review of a certain body of ancient Jewish literature. When one is reviewing reviews of a review, the snake of critical reading is starting to devour its own tail at least a little bit.
But I have found that this is not an isolated phenomenon. Although I have as of yet not had the opportunity to review many books that are themselves reviews of other book reviews, more and more I am seeing that this sort of thing happens. And I am not sure that I like the trend, at least as I have seen it so far. One of my friends and a former writing teacher of mine once suggested that I make a book of some of my book reviews. While I have no doubt that I could do this, I tend to spend so much time writing book reviews that I lack the time to turn these book reviews into a book. And then once this task is done, there must be at least some effort spent at formatting and copyediting and then marketing such an effort. And for what? Most of my book reviews are not very popular, except on those rare occasions where a writer or publisher has found my review of interest either to send to trolling friends or, more happily, when they find my review would help to sell the book and so the review itself is shared with others. This does not happen often enough for me to have spent very much time collecting my reviews into book form to ready for publication, although that may occur at some time in the future.
That said, this is not the sort of effort that bothers me. I have read, with enjoyment, collections of negative movie reviews (including one memorable case in which he changed his mind) from the late great movie reviewer Roger Ebert. I would read a collection of reviews from a contemporary reviewer like Chris Stuckman as well in book form, if such was available. But not all book review collections and reviews are as worthwhile as this. Most of the books that are reviews of book reviews that I have seen are of a particular kind that is hostile to the book reviewers. For example, a friend of mine wanted to read a book called “Fire The Bastards!,” which then showed up on my Goodreads news feed. As it happens, this book was the unauthorized printing of an attack on book reviewers who had negatively read and failed to understand a book that is considered by some to be a classic, William Gaddis’ 1955 novel The Recognitions, which I must admit I have never read. Nonetheless, the gist of the attack is that the negative book reviewers can’t handle a book that requires marination, re-reading, and happens to be unconventional.
This is probably a fair criticism, as negative as it is, at least from my own experience of reading. I read upwards of 600 books a year, a fairly blistering pace that usually means I do about 400 or more pages of reading a day. When someone reads at that sort of pace, they are usually not going to bother reading a book twice. A great many books are not worth reading once, much less multiple times. And those books which are read multiple times, like a comfy Jane Austen novel, are the sorts of books that one reads precisely because they are comfortable and familiar, and which can lead one to discover new layers in a book. Now, I cannot say for sure whether William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions deserves that sort of layered reading, but I do know from reading the comments about the review of the adverse reviews the novel had originally received that the novel has a lot of passionate fans who support the way the negative reviews the novel received got taken down. And there is something to criticize when it comes to the official book reviewing media, although I happen to be a part of it. If you are writing a book that demands a lot out of a reader and that challenges his viewpoints and perspectives and expectations, the odds are fairly high that the reader is not going to appreciate it very much.
This is not to say that writers like myself make poor book reviewers. On the contrary, there have rarely (if ever) been good writers who were not good readers. The vast majority of those of us who write devour far more books than we produce in text ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, I read about 400 pages or more on a daily basis, more on “lazy” Sundays, and I end up writing about 2000 or 3000 words a day, considerably fewer words than I read. But the sort of large amount of reading that one does is not conducive to giving books a fair shot that do not go down easily. I have read a lot of books by African or Caribbean authors who do not appear to have read a great many Western books and who do not have the sort of approach that Western writers do, and I have found their books to be deeply interesting, albeit somewhat difficult. But if you’re not willing to give what is unusual a chance because it slows your pace of reading down a bit, you are going to miss a lot of classics that simply take a bit longer to appreciate. There is little use in reading a lot or in reading quickly if one does not read well, and if one misses something that really deserves the time it takes to read it profitably.