No one reviews books anymore.
There have been enough essays on the death of book reading, but have there been enough words devoted to discussing the decline of book reviewing? In the last decade or soâ€”yes, indeed, as we’ve all wrestled with how the internet influences everything we do, including reading, writing, and writing about books (Tolstoy LOL tl;dr). But while the words “book-review” made its first print appearance as a headline in 1861 to just thatâ€”a review of a book titled How to Talk: A Pocket of Speaking, Conversation, and Debating (verdict: “The present work has the additional recommendation of an unmistakably useful subject, which is lucidly treated”)â€”the practice of criticizing the critics has always been with us. Most often, dissatisfaction with the state of book reviewing has come not from the readers who are the reviewers’ intended audience, but from writers who have felt their work mishandled, unjustly ignored, or cruelly misunderstood.
Launched in 1665, the Parisian Journal des SÃ§avans (“sÃ§avans,” a word related to “savant,” and denominating a version of the French â€œscholarâ€) was the first publication devoted entirely to the task of criticism. Its aim was “to give readers (and scholars) a universal account of the state of learning,” with reviews “conceived of as installments of a continuous encyclopaedia to be carried on until the end of time.” The vision here was broad and expansive. In its pursuit of compiling scientific knowledge, Journal des SÃ§avans focused on objectivity; the reviews largely aimed to document findings, discoveries, and inventions in the world of biology and technology.
By the time of the first quote â€œbook-review,â€ criticism had been in circulation for centuriesâ€”long enough for writers to know how it can sting. Understandably, then, the criticâ€™s skepticism of an artist’s genius has invariably existed alongside the artist’s doubt over the critic’s judgment. It’s coincidence but seems fitting that shortly after the Journal des SÃ§avans launched, Alexander Pope was making such observations as:
Such shameless bards we have; and yet ’tis true
There are as mad abandon’d critics too.
The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always list’ning to himself appears.
(It’s fun to imagine what Pope would have made of James Franco, book critic, opening with the sally: “I read a lot.”)