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Monday, July 06, 2009

Reviews, Length & Presentation

Hoover Institution publishes great book reviews. I have 2 issues - length & style. The first one is a minor quibble. The author has got to write all his thoughts. For the sake of impatient readership the author can consider condensing or editing out ideas/opinions/sentences that don't fit into the crux of the review. But if the author wants it out there, there's no stopping. Still 5500 words is pushing the limits by modern web article standards. There are pieces in NYT Magazine, TNR & New Yorker that run upto 12 pages - but they deal with a solid topic, like the recession or racism or celeb-culture. James Wood, one of the revered book critics in work today, conveys his thoughts in a far lesser number of words. At this point in my life and with my exposure, I'm not inclined to read a review that's a considerable size of the book being reviewed. But I respect the author's decision to go all the way.

Their style really puts me off. I've seen instruction boards in a few railway stations in India that makes little sense - because they were framed in the British Raj and nobody took the pains to rephrase it. It would be something as simple as 'Don't spit on the platform', but to comprehend what's written on the board you'd need a colonial tight-ass next to you. Hoover's reviews aren't that bad, but the mere fact that they invite comparison to 19th century British English is worrisome. Read these sentences:
Regardless of one’s political proclivities or whether or not one just happens to like the personable Barack Obama, it’s clear that the president relishes the vague metaphor, adores the illogical argumentative sequence, and luxuriates in making words mean what only yesterday they didn’t.

Orwell is important here less for the topics he wrote about — although subjects such as poverty and oppression are obviously significant — than for the observational and anti-theoretical way in which he endeavored to write about them.
It's not ununderstandable, but there are much easier ways to say the same thing. It's almost like decoding a poem to enjoy the juice - only to find that there isn't any juice, but a talk about juice. There's a lot of fashionable nonsense on the web which requires both dictionary and wikipedia to understand individual sentences, but put together as a whole wouldn't make much sense. There was a time when I wanted to be a decorative writer and I devoured on articles and writers who used high-sounding words that many didn't understand. I've changed since then and started valuing content more than presentation. Salman Rushdie was my favorite writer. He still is, but more for his richly imaginative narration and less for his vocabulary grandeur. Having said all of that, I still recommend their reviews; criticism is a literary genre and Hoover is very good at that.

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