South African Book Reviewers should learn to write book reviews effectively

2012-03-12 16:32

This article came to me on the eve of the publishing and launching of the book Eight Days in September: The removal of Thabo Mbeki, written by Frank Chikane. As the book is a land mark that is cataloguing and interpreting a portion of history of the democratic free South Africa thereby defining it, I was asking myself the question, how can one review such a book? Then my mind got distracted as I found myself thinking about the genre of book reviewing; what is a book review? What is the point of a book review? What goal is being achieved in writing a book review?

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It helps to let it know that in my undergraduate university degree I majored in a course that was called General Literary Studies. The course in essence seeks to develop and provide theories and techniques of literary critique. The main outlet of literary critique is a book review. But like any other university course General Literary Studies does not just dish out knowledge but it also impart to the student a reflective capacity and a willingness to review and renew prevailing ideas, policies and practices.

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I was taught by Prof Joan Hambidge who is currently the associate dean of the Faculty of Human Sciences and professor of School of Languages and Literature at the University of Cape Town. She is also an acclaimed poet and essay writer.

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Writing a book review is not about summarizing the subject of the book. A good book review is interpretative in nature. The book reviewer enters into the spirit of the author by studying the book’s insights – seeking to clutch the essence or idea about the book. This is the first part of the book review process. After the book reviewer has gotten the essential tempo, the theme of the book then comes reflections and perspectives. This is main part of the book review process. So what it comes down to is that the book reviewer should not study the book on a mere technical basis but he or she must get into the mood of the author. The book reviewer should have natural passion for the subject if he or she will do justice to the book.

A book review is therefore not a mere mechanical report about the content of the book chapter by chapter. Yes a book review should and indeed does present the subject of the book, but that is one less part of the purpose of a book review. A book review’s main purpose is to provide perspectives. What is the implication of the knowledge generated in this book is one of the key question the book reviewer must focus on.

Why is this book written? What inspired it? How is it written, what circumstances surrounded the writing of this book. What is the book’s central argument? Did the book do what it set out to do? Is the book well written? How accurate is the information provided? What course can it be used for? Who will benefit from reading this book? More importantly, what critical message and lessons can we draw from the author’s approach, perspective and experiences shared in the work?

A book is the facility of knowledge and knowledge is civilization or progress. Civilization or progress comes by knowledge. Books carry ideas with which human society advances. The goal of a book review is to expound on that knowledge to stimulate debates. All in all however, a book has something to offer and it depends on what the reader is prepared to take out of a book.

Keep in mind that the popular novel, Things Fall Apart written by Chinua Achebe was first for a long period of time unselleble but mostly because of the strength of book review culture in Nigeria Things Fall Apart went on to become the most read book out of Africa today. It was because of the quality and strength of Nigerian book review industry that you have global writing giants coming from Nigeria  like my great friend Chimamanda Ngozi Aditchie. Chimamanda is the author of Purple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book and Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Broadband prize for fiction. She is also one of the recipients of the 2008 MacArthur Fellowship.

In Nigeria book reviewing is not only limited to publishers and journalists, it has been democratized that even an ordinary first year student can write a glistering bright book review and make it available to the rest of the world.

When are we going to have the same from South Africa with all the privileges we have the rest of Africa combined?

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