The best book reviews are the ones that avoid the pitfall of objectivity because in reviewing books there no such thing. Sure, there are good comparisons to give a sense of objective placement – this book is similar to that one, the author writes dialogue like that other author, the prose resembles so-and-so’s – but when it comes to the quality of the book objectivity is mostly out the window. Rather than claiming to provide an objective perspective, a good review claims to provide the author’s perspective and then argues it well. Here’s why claims of objectivity should not be trusted.
Every reader intersects a book at a certain period of life, and this intersection is the great determiner of the impact that book has. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and was bored. My review would have been “like most literary classics this book rides the coattails of its own reputation with no real merit” or something like that. But I read it again when I was 25 and now consider it to be one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever stumbled across. That’s because I was in a period of life with enough added maturity and perspective to appreciate it. And it wasn’t homework the second time.
The expectation level a reader brings to a book does a great service or disservice to it. Low expectations set a book up well to surprise whereas expectations of greatness are awfully hard to fulfill. So when a reviewer says a book was a disappointment we have to consider what he expected. And a truly good reviewer will tell you what he expected if he proclaims disappointment. The converse is also true. If a reviewer is “pleasantly surprised” he ought to explain what he expected to begin with and how the book surpassed those expectations. I was pleasantly surprised at my second reading of To Kill a Mockingbird because my expectations were based on high school homework boredom.
Books are not a one size fits all. The readers own preferences and expectations must be taken into account when reading a review. I may have found a certain book on writing to be the most helpful resource to date and my review would state that. But that doesn’t mean it would be the most helpful for everybody, so it behooves me as a reviewer to give clear explanation of what was helpful in the book so readers of the review will know whether that’s the resource that will suit their individual needs.
And of course, most broadly, reviewer preference, opinion, and pet peeve must be considered. This takes time to discern unless the reviewer is overtly honest in saying things like “I despise happy endings; they’re so trite” or “I love everything that flows from the pen of George R.R. Martin.” As you read a reviewer over time you’ll figure out which types of books tend to rise to the top, which authors are favorites or whipping boys, and which topics are especially dear to the reviewer (for good or ill). In this way you build a bit of a trust (mistrust?) relationship with the reviewer. You’ll learn that, just like you always get your produce from Trader Joes, so you will always get fiction reviews from this reviewer and just like you never get your cereal from Trader Joes you will never get biography reviews from him.
A good reviewer is honest as to his preferences. He is clear in his assessments and pointed in his explanations for them. He doesn’t shy away from making his opinions known or making it known that they are but opinions. But after he does that he defends them with both clear argument and vigor. If he can’t or doesn’t he is nothing more than a yapping opinion monger, but if he does it well he is worth paying attention to because, whether or not you agree with him, you will have learned some very clear lessons about that book.