Saturday, May 13, 2006

Setting the Work in Context

I’m back home in Toronto and back to my Saturday morning ritual of reading the Globe and Mail Books section cover to cover. There are some very good reviews in this week’s edition. By good I mean well written, not necessarily positive, though, as it happens, both of the reviews that I single out for praise here have positive things to say about the books under review. The two standouts for me are Catherine Bush’s review of Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey and T.F. Rigelhof’s review of jPod by Douglas Coupland.

One aspect of these reviews that makes them particularly noteworthy is the excellent job each reviewer does of setting the book under review within the context of the author's work as a whole. This is a feature that I find to be all too rare in contemporary book reviews. I understand why. First, the word limits imposed on reviews by most print publications simply don't allow space for it. Second, reviewing is a time-consuming activity. Even if reviewers restrict the time that they spend on it to a careful reading of the book and the subsequent drafting of the review, the pay per hour generally works out to an abysmally low sum. If you add to that the time it would take for reviewers to familiarize or reacquaint themselves with the entire oeuvre of the authors whose books they write about, the pay rate sinks to even greater depths.

Thus I certainly don’t expect all reviewers to make reference to authors’ previous work and to where the current book fits in. But when reviewers do this and they do it well, it’s a real service to the reader. I’ve heard plenty about both Peter Carey and Douglas Coupland but I’m not very familiar with the work of either. Reading Bush’s and Rigelhof’s reviews of these authors’ latest books has piqued my interest not just in those books but also in the ones that preceded them.

1 comment:

Dorothy W. said...

I agree -- I think it's nice to have someone suggest where to start with a new author, to say which books are the strongest. Of course, I may not agree with their opinion, but I wouldn't want to pick up a book that people generally agree isn't the author's best.