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To Kirkus w/love: A book geek’s lament

December 27, 2009

So long Kirkus, we hardly knew ye'

I found out a couple of days ago that Kirkus Review is shutting it’s doors and it kinda felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a hardback copy of Infinite Jest, ie. it stung, more than a little. And I know that outside of authors and folks in the book biz, the news is probably not much more than a fart in the wind, but as someone who grew up with Kirkus and still planned to one day see my byline amongst it’s pages of slightly crabby book reviews, the aroma of this news was particularly funky.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a book review addict. In high school, years before I decided I wanted to write for living, we always had subscriptions to at least 2 newspapers and I remember waking up on Sunday mornings and tearing apart the Richmond Times Dispatch and the New York Times, reordering the sections to fit my nerdy needs. First there were the two book review sections (remember when book reviews actually had their own sections?), then travel, then lifestyle/arts, then comics, then the magazines. And somewhere after that was the rest of that stuff that other people seemed to think was important.

Being broke and growing up in a not exactly small, but not exactly book friendly city, these reviews were often as close as I got to the books themselves and it was comforting to know that somewhere out there were folks that got off on that new novel smell just as much as I did.

Most of my working life pre-writing was split between libraries and bookstores and that’s where I first discovered the holy trinity of Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and Poets and Writers, along with a whole gang of other writing related rags. After this revelation my productivity dwindled to just above nonexistent, as just about every moment was spent with my nose between the pages of one of these wordy journals. Luckily I was surrounded by other booksluts who shared my addiction. I mean, these were books we were talking about-serious business! Plus PW came out like every week and I didn’t pick up my 1st copy until I was like 19, I had a lot to catch up on.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always carried at least one book on me-you never know when you’ll get stranded on a desert island and need a quality page turner. And during most of my early 20’s I carted around my own portable library, which unfailingly included at least one copy of Kirkus or PW. When Salon’s Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors came out, that big orange and white fucker was my Bible for years. Other people had Jesus and Buddha, I prayed to the alter of Laura Miller. Michiko Kakutani was my secret mistress. Ishmael Reed and Stanley Crouch were my super smart, grumpy uncles.

I credit this time with shaping my appreciation for Literature with a capital “L.” I learned the different ways words could mean and how serious writing opened windows to new worlds. I discovered how a great piece of work could hold a mirror up to lives and examine all our ideas and insecurities, our hopes and horrors.

And it was comforting to know that the narratives and satires I’d been creating in my head for years might actually have some value outside my scattered domepiece and tattered notebooks. It wasn’t until later that I realized how “The Cannon” was actually somewhat of an insidery lit-clique that excluded many of the most diverse and vibrant voices. But even with it’s faults, I still held an appreciation for fine writing and quality criticism that continues today.

Of course, the fall of the book review is linked to the larger sea changes in publishing and media and there are oodles of user generated review sites that have popped up to fill the void. But like Meghan Daum notes in her piece, “Kirkus Reviews may have been annoying, but its successors are inane,” many of these reviews are skewed more towards the confessional than the contextual. I’ve yet to find an Amazon review with the depth of a Kenneth Rexroth essay or the ideological nimbleness of Geoff Dyer review. Not saying they’re not there, but I am still looking.

The Bible

And while the “hated it/loved it, here’s some more about me” style commentaries have often helped me make a buying decision, the purpose of the review or critique as I’ve known it is to put the writing into context, to pontificate on it’s place, it’s prose and it’s passions. It wasn’t about “you should buy this book.” It was about “this is how this piece of art fits into the world around it.”

But despite the title of this post I’m not ready to send quality book reviews up into the realm of the ancestors just yet. There are loads of passionate books lovers online who’ve taken it upon themselves to launch some stellar projects celebrating the written word. And as much as people tend to talk shit about the reviewer or the critic, I still believe that they play a much needed roll in our culture. Not as gatekeepers or end-all-be-all authorities, but as guides stationed along the pathways of the written word.

No, I think the real question isn’t “is book reviewing dead?” It’s more “how does the reviewer adapt to the new media landscape?” Now is the time for those of us who’ve spent careers analyzing, theorizing and placing value on the work of others to turn the magnifying glass inward and decide how we fit into the changing world.

As much as it sucks to see Kirkus go the way of the dodo, the real onus is with the reviewers and critics to define our new place, not to fret over the demise of our old platforms. Because in the end, we will be as relevant as we allow ourselves to be. The world still needs quality critiques and reviews. We just have to figure out the best ways to give them.

And with that here are a few of my favorite online lit destinations, some of the brave book soldiers who’ve taken the fight for good reading into the digital age.

Felicia Pride-The Backlist
African American Literature Book Club
Identity Theory
Arts and Letters Daily

Got more sites I should check out? Add em in the comments. I’m always on the hunt for good reads.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. subject/verb agreement permalink
    December 28, 2009 11:05 pm

    this is a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to your true love Literature. thank you for moving these private thoughts to the public domain. i like learning more about kwan 🙂

    here is another site for good reading:

    not reviews, but letters. correspondence. some famous, some otherwise. fascinating. funny. fuck yeah. xo

    • Boothism permalink*
      January 3, 2010 5:03 pm

      Thank you. Truth be told I’m following your lead on this whole confessional, telling stuff about me kind of posting. I’m learning to bleed onstage. It’s a slow but rewarding process.

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