06 December 2008

The Purpose of a Book Review

A few months ago, in a post titled In Defense of Chess Book Reviewers, I wondered, 'What is the purpose of a book review?' Two obvious answers come to mind: (1) to give an opinion about the book, and (2) to give others help on deciding whether the book is worth procuring or not.

I was reminded of that post in relation to a book titled 'The Genius and the Misery of Chess' by Zhivko Kaikamjozov. I received a copy from its U.S. distributor, who was looking for a review on About.com. Unbeknownst to the distributor's agent, I had recently stopped writing for the site. I offered to pay for the book and was told that I could just keep it.

I read portions of the book and found it very strange, a mixture of little known facts and unsubstantiated legends, impossible to separate fact from legend. Despite its many glaring technical flaws, and for reasons I couldn't explain, I also found it more entertaining than most chess books. I decided that it would have been a difficult book to review, put it aside, and forgot about it.

I don't often read book reviews unless I've read the book myself -or- have a special interest in the author -or- am interested in the reviewer. This is a practical matter. There are so many chess books and so many reviews that it is impossible to digest them all.

Two of those conditions -- I've read the book myself and am interested in the reviewer -- applied to one of Edward Winter's recent Chess Notes, a short post about the book titled 'CN 5855. Miserable' on ChessHistory.com. The pre-eminent chess historian of our age extracted a few ridiculous passages and ended by saying the 'Morphy chapter shows the author at his most fabulistic, and we have seldom seen anything quite so bad.'

The same two conditions applied to Steve Goldberg's Review: The Genius and the Misery of Chess, where the ChessCafe.com reviewer pointed to one of his recent efforts. Like me, Goldberg had trouble deciding whether he liked the book and finally hedged with 'Despite all of its shortcomings, The Genius and the Misery of Chess offers a couple of useful purposes', specifically 'a helpful, brief introduction for the nearly four dozen players profiled', and 'another writer might consider expanding the concept to produce a new volume with somewhat more extensive coverage'.

There I had two different opinions: Winter's 'bad' and Goldberg's 'offers a couple of useful purposes'. I found another review on Chessco.com, where the reviewer's opinion of the book was 'quite palatable'.

As for the second purpose of a review -- Is the book worth procuring? -- the contrast in the three reviews confirms one of my own goals in writing a review: To allow different readers to judge a book according to their own level. For this particular book, I conclude that professional historians will find nothing of value, amateur historians (where I fit in) will find a useful guide on how to do (or not to do) something similar, and the general public will find the book 'helpful' or, at worst, 'palatable'.

Unfortunately, most reviews don't make it clear who their readership targets are. This is why I like to know something about the content of a book, and why I find the list of chapters in the catalog entry on SchachVersand.de so useful. I've read enough about Morphy to be sure that I'm not interested in a six page summary of his career. Ditto for the other world champions. In contrast, I know little about Klaus Junge and will undoubtedly learn something from a five page summary.

I also like to know something about the author of a book. I'm not likely to buy a title from an unknown author, and in this current example, I knew nothing about Kaikamjozov. The back cover of the book, copied on Caissa-chess.com, tells me that he is a chess master, 'well-known in the chess world, particularly for his students, who include grandmasters Velikov, Spassov, and Voiska, as well as Topalov's manager Silvio Danailov'. Further back cover biographical info confirms that he is a chess insider.

Now I understand why the book interested me. If I had to write a review, I would recommend it for amateur and neophyte chess historians with some tolerance for sloppiness. Other potential readers can understand that it is probably not a book for them.


Howard Goldowsky said...

Interesting, Mark. I guess that I would disagree with you on one point: I don't think that it's the job of the reviewer to make a purchase recommendation, one way or the other. The reviewer should lay out his or her opinion, and stop shy of writing something like, "recommended."

Ryan said...

Personally, I think the job of a reviewer IS to recommend (or not) the book under consideration, bearing in mind the potential audience(s) that may wish to buy it.

Interesting post.