‘This Crappy Book …’

IF you don’t know how to begin your book review you reach straight for the Dictionary of Quotations. So: ‘I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so’ – Sydney Smith, essayist and compulsive reviewer. And there, you are started.

Literary consensus is pretty down on book reviewing, regarding it as an infallible sign that you are well and truly living in Grub Street – that notional zone of professional low-status, where turning out a few hundred words about someone who has managed to write quite a few thousand words is the best you can ever do. I don’t see it that way. Reviewing books is good – in my book. You not only get to read a lot more books, but you get to read them with a dissecting eye. If you don’t have a dissecting eye, then you will grow one, pretty quick. And you can say exactly what you want. Or as Paul Theroux began one review of a well-known author ‘This crappy book …’.

Sometimes, reviews can be more interesting than their subjects. The best book reviews are often of works on the borderline of mainstream culture, or books about subjects that don’t fall into any clear category, and they are often the most fun to do. So it was in the spirit of the borderline that among the reviews I’ve recently written are ones of books about Noel Coward, Fred Astaire, and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as one on a biography of that strangely mythic figure for anyone growing up in the 1960s, Jacques Cousteau. And there’s more: here’s one on the English language and who’s in charge of it, another on early British tourists, plus one on the nature writer Roger Deakin.