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BY JOHN RIUTTA
I founded The Well-read Naturalist in 2009 after noticing how many interesting books on natural history subjects languished for lack of attention. It seemed that naturalists of various interests — with the exception of bird watchers – had no effective way of discovering new books about their favorite topics.
I combined my passion in studying nature — I’ve been an amateur naturalist since childhood — with my professional experience in marketing and writing to produce a site dedicated to works on natural history. The skills I’ve learned through publishing scores of full-length and short book reviews can be summed up in six basic rules you can apply to reviewing books of any genre.
- Don’t write negative reviews.
While some critics find negative reviews a way to show off their cleverness, they do little good for the reader or the reviewer. After all, why would anyone want to waste their time reading about a book that you’re telling them not to bother reading? And as all too many “slap suits” filed against authors of negative reviews by both book authors and publishing houses in recent years have shown, negative reviews generate more headaches for the reviewer than they’re worth.
Yes, there are some books that deserve to be harshly criticized, but in today’s social media driven, “look at me!” society, negative criticism only serves to generate attention for the very thing you wanted to deprive of it. Therefore when you encounter a book so bad that you wish to heap censure upon it, it’s best to stick to Oscar Wilde’s famous line from “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
- Do write enthusiastic reviews.
It’s OK to let your readers know you’re excited about a book you’re reviewing. Academic criticism calls for a dispassionate stance in regard to the subject, but unless you’re reviewing a book for a scholarly journal, it’s perfectly fine to be open about how interesting you found the book, how much you learned from it, or simply how much you enjoyed reading it. If you really want others to read the book you’re reviewing (and after all, isn’t that the reason you’re telling them about it in the first place?) showing your own enthusiasm about it is one of the best cornerstones upon which to build your argument.
- Don’t review books where the content is beyond your level of knowledge.
While I’m a fairly well-rounded general naturalist, there are some subjects in which I am better informed than others. There are shelves of books published each year about subjects I don’t know a lot about. In these cases, I take one of two approaches. Books written by professionals in the field for other professionals I tend to leave alone; I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on the content of such works. As to books on subjects I know little about, but which are written for a general audience, I consider how much I learned about the subject from reading it. In many cases, the author wrote the book to educate people. I try to reflect my enthusiasm for discovery which makes the review interesting and useful.
- Do review books on subjects in which you are interested.
From a young age, I was blessed (or cursed, depending upon whom you ask) with an insatiable curiosity about most everything in nature. Consequently, there aren’t many natural history subject areas that I don’t find interesting — including some subject matter I may have not known existed until I found a book on it. It’s this interest in the subject matter that really carries the weight in a good review.
- Don’t review books just because you think they’ll be popular.
I twice picked up a book to read and review because I thought its popularity would bring more attention to my writing, even though I thought the book wasn’t particularly worthwhile. Both times I wrote reviews I didn’t like.
They seemed flat and forced. Since writing these two reviews, I haven’t reviewed any books that after reading it I wouldn’t say “you really need to read this book,” and whole-heartedly mean it.
- Do review books you think people might otherwise not read.
I write book reviews to help people discover interesting and enjoyable books. I started reviewing natural books because I hated the idea that people wouldn’t discover books they’d like. Reviewing books is meant to be a way to introduce people to new titles, authors and subject matter.
So there you have it – my six basic rules for reviewing books. None of them are really trade secrets; simply common sense ideas that I’ve gained from years of experience in the craft. I hope that the next time you find yourself faced with the reading and reviewing of a new book that you’ll give them a bit of thought. They’ve long helped me in my work and I offer them here in the hope that more books will be written about for the good of readers everywhere.♦
– Founder and publisher of The Well-read Naturalist (www.wellreadnaturalist.com), John Riutta is also a sports optics development professional whose resume includes a long tenure in both communications and development with Leupold, and his present position of product manager for sports optics with Celestron
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