Believe It or Not, People Love Writing Book Reviews

Posted by Patrick Brown on July 18, 2011
A couple of weeks ago, in the journal n+1, Elizabeth Gumport published an impassioned critique of reviews, focusing specifically on book reviews. I doubt very much that I'll be able to summarize it, so please do click through and read it in its entirety. It is worth your time.

Gumport seems to have two critiques, one which applies to book reviews as publications (The New York Times Book Review, for instance) and the other to reviews themselves. While the first part of her argument rings true to me -- the role of the book review section has diminished and changed in recent years -- it's not the section I'd like to discuss. Rather, I'd like to focus on this line from near the end of Gumport's essay: "If we could read and write anything we wanted, what would we read and write? Probably not book reviews?"

Really? This doesn't fit with my experience here at Goodreads. At last count, we have over 8 million text reviews on the site (with at least 100 characters of text), and we add roughly 8 to 9,000 more each day. How do we reconcile this with Gumport's argument that we don't actually enjoy reading or writing book reviews? If this were true, why would so many people be flocking to a site to write book reviews?

The answer lies in the nature of our reviews. On Goodreads, a review is a personal opinion, and, more importantly, a jumping off point for a passionate discussion. While there are certainly some reviews on the site that fall into the trap of plot summary, most are emotional reactions -- what about the book was moving, which characters are likable and which aren't. This sets the stage for passionate debate of ideas among friends -- something that is fairly impossible in the traditional book review. Our members have commented on over 400,000 different reviews. That represents an astounding volume of literary dialog.

Furthermore, looking at our top reviews for the past week (those receiving the most "likes"), I'm struck by how creative and, in some cases, unconventional they are (Many of them use images, for instance). These are deeply personal creative pieces of writing, works that arguably share as much with the average blog post as they do with a book review. And they are clearly wildly popular. In fact, they appear to be gaining popularity, rather than losing it.

With that in mind, why do you read and write reviews? And what makes Goodreads reviews appealing while those of newspaper review sections appear to be waning in popularity?

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Serge (new)

Serge The A book or music review is highly subjective.

Most people want to share things they discovered and liked, share their passion.

The latest book I mentioned on 'Serge the Concierge' is 'Paris to the Past' by Irene Caro or French history a train ride away.

Here is the link


message 2: by Betsy (last edited Jul 31, 2011 09:16PM) (new)

Betsy Newspaper reviews have to meet certain criteria, of the publication and its readers. It seems to me they try very hard to be "literary" and prove how incredible intelligent and well-read the reviewer is. They are very competitive with each other.

On Goodreads, it's much more unrestrained and personal. You get a wide variety in style, length, and opinion. They can be very personal or very erudite or rather crude. Everyone wants to have their reviews liked, but it doesn't seem to be the same type of competition. Here on Goodreads, you are writing a review as much for consumption by your friends as by the reading public and they reflect that.

message 3: by Tricia (new)

Tricia As a former English major, I find that I retain more information if I synthesize it by writing a review. By recording my impressions I can better remember how I felt after reading it, and whether or not I want to read it again.

message 4: by Wendy (new)

Wendy White Good Reads is basically my favourite site on the net (other than Dropbox and Zen Habits). I used to get all my book reviews from Amazon, but these days I find it far easier to get them all here. Good Reads is basically the only website community I really, truly care about ;-)

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