Book Reviews: Not Just an Amazon Thing

It’s funny how, when you write, your mind takes you on unexpected paths. When I set out to write (or, rather, resurrect) this blog, I really had no intention of starting with genres that encourage students to write about literature. To be honest, though, after writing my previous post about literary analysis, I am still really inspired about this notion of initiating students into communities of literacy. And writing about literature is one way for students to get access to the club.

I’ve also been thinking about giving students opportunities to create communities of literacy in their own classrooms too, and in doing that, I’ve been exploring the question of ways students can enter their voice into the world of literary criticism but also gather their peers around authentic reading and writing. And that got me thinking about book reviews.

No, I don’t mean book reviews a la Amazon or Goodreads, though those might be effective entry points into this world. What I’m talking about are meaty, interesting book reviews published in places like Harper’s, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Kirkus Reviews, or even lesser known sites like BookPage.

First, let’s talk writing. You might think book reviews wouldn’t provide enough substance to really push kids to write seriously about literature. If that’s the case, think again. You only need to take a peek at a book review like “Love for Sale,” by Francine Prose about the book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Leanne Shapton) to change your mind. It is thoughtful and interesting, and most importantly, actually makes me want to read the book.

But if you think about what Prose did as a writer, then the intellectual demand and sophistication of writing something like this Harper’s review definitely puts this particular genre on my radar for “things that high school kids should write.”

Take the first paragraph, for example. She begins the review by mentioning a situation that has universal appeal: the fact that, as children, most of us probably wondered if our toys or possessions became animated when we slept at night. And if you question that as a universal assumption, then look no further than the Toy Story franchise.

Of course, this is the first sophisticated move she makes as a critic and writer, because as you read the rest of her twenty-three paragraphs (incidentally, much longer than 5), you realize that this opening paragraph connects seamlessly with her central observations about Shapton’s work. She moves into the second paragraph, which introduces the central tension: as we age, we tend to emotionally detach ourselves from these objects…sometimes. Then again, sometimes these objects are so sentimental that they take hold of us. Permanently and ruthlessly.

After two paragraphs of introductory material, Prose gets to the book. She first talks about the form–an “imitation of the auction catalogues that often accompany the sale of an estate or private collection,” and in this discussion, she describes how Shapton’s text is like other auction catalogues and even describes her favorite example of the genre: a volume from 1977 filled with skulls and other emblems of death. If you think about this work as a writer, Prose would have had to read other examples of the auction catalogue (and deeply understand the features of this genre) in order to compare Shapton’s work to them. And if we think about teaching our students to do this work (know what else to read in order to connect to books they are already reading), it helps us understand the various levels of rigor that writing a good book review–one that is like real book reviews–incorporates.

She takes a quick one-paragraph detour to discuss why it is the form–and not the content–that makes this text fresh, original, and engaging. This means that, as a reader, Prose needed to have read many examples of love-and-lost stories to make this assertion in the first place.

Once Prose begins to discuss both the content and the style of Shapton’s book, she organizes her review to follow Important Artifacts chronologically–through the text and, thus, through the relationship of the two main characters. As she does this work throughout 14 paragraphs, she carefully analyzes the artifacts (her evidence) and what they say about the relationship (her analysis).

Finally, we get to the central idea of the text in paragraph 20: “The seriousness beneath the joke is that these scraps of paper, used clothes, and borderline garbage were formerly objects of incalculable worth; indeed, they once meant everything to this fictional couple.” But the analysis doesn’t stop here. Prose not only discusses this important idea, but also talks about how the form of Shapton’s book allows her to explore multilayered ideas, not just the importance of these items to the couple, but also the importance of “modern love, city life, a time and a place, a social class, a milieu, and a relationship to objects that both reflects and transcends the specificities of all of the above.”

At the very end, Prose makes a connection to our lives, and we return to the universality of the opening paragraph. And that is exactly where Prose leaves us. Where we began.

Certainly, this is a masterful example by a true professional, but if we provide models like this for our students–and then teach them how to write reviews like this–imagine what would be possible for them. And there are examples of this type of writing all over the Internet. BookPage is actually a very accessible and interesting place to find these reviews, though none of them are quite as deep as the examples you’ll find in Harper’s.

Now let’s think about how these reviews might launch our kids into the community of literacy. Students can write to be a part of a larger conversation, but they can also write to share their deepest thoughts about books with their friends, and in high school, where social standing seems to be everything, this might even be the most important reason for teens to write reviews. Imagine asking students to write reviews and then publishing them in the classroom, on a class blog, or even, yes, on Amazon or Goodreads. Imagine participating in an authentic community of literacy not only outside of the classroom, but also in it, where students are thinking and writing about what they read and sharing it with others. Now there’s an authentic model of literacy.

Postscript

Genre: Book reviews

Possible Essential Questions:

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

What is good writing?

Possible Units:

I could see book reviews being done anytime students have read independently. Imagine doing lit circles (or independent reading) and then teaching students how to do book reviews to analyze their books and persuade others to read them

I could also see doing a book review genre study–maybe after engaging in some deep reading work around novels

It seems that book reviews could become an ongoing ritual in the classroom, with students writing them after many books they read and then publishing them in a central location that all of the kids could access (classroom, school library, class website or blog…imagine the possibilities)

Ways You Might Use This Type of Text

As mentor texts for this genre

As another way of looking at literary criticism

Other Instructional Materials or Experiences That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author, time period, and/or book that students are reading (students could research this themselves once they know how to research effectively–or this research could be embedded into the instruction about book reviews)

Other examples of the genre that students are reviewing

Other examples of similar stories that students are reviewing

Other works by the same author

 

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