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How to Write
a Book Review


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The preliminary step in any journey is always the most excruciating, and the journey that is book reviewing is no exception. First off, it is very useful to acquire a copy of the book to be reviewed. If you are a staff writer or editor of a newspaper or literary magazine, this should not be a hard task. Publicity offices at most publishing houses jump at the chance to send out free copies of their books to high-circulation publications.

If, on the other hand, you are a freelancer without a current assignment for the book, or worse, a self-publisher, the chances are innumerably greater that your request will make its way directly into the publicist's wastebasket. If phoning the request, you are more apt to spend 15 minutes on the phone with the receptionist, stumbling over your words (of which, as a true writer, you should be lord and master) as you try to find the magic phrases that will get you past the Midgard of the front desk and into the Valhalla of the publicist’s voicemail. Once there, you will inevitably stumble over your words once more and impress the publicist only to the point of electronically tossing your request into the wastebasket.

A better bet for the self-publisher is to go to the newsstand and take copies of seven or eight different newspapers, some foreign, and cut the mastheads from them. Position each masthead on top of a sheet of paper containing your request, typing the words “Weekend Edition” or “American Office” under each. Fax these requests from different copy shops on different days of the week, carefully spelling a different alias and editorship at each paper. As the sending address, mark each (in different writing styles: publicists are trained masters of handwriting analysis) with the address of a close friend or relative, one you can trust to send the book to you. Don't include a phone number, but as a precaution answer your own phone with a gruff, hurried European accent for the next three weeks. A month or so later, as the only successful request comes to its fruition in your Aunt Nelly’s mailbox, hurriedly tear open the package and pull out the used galley version of the wrong book.

Toss this into its rightful place in the garbage and, since your self-appointed deadline is tomorrow, rush to the bookstore and buy your own copy. Spend the rest of the day in rapid consumption of the text, marking up the pages and writing the review simultaneously. This is the true measure of all reviewers: the ability to read the book and write and submit their first draft of the review as proof of their unquestionable writing ability. Most every literary critic uses this technique, and it obviously is very effective, as it is impossible to find a review in which the writer doesn’t seem to know what he's talking about.

One last thing. All art criticism is interpretation. Something you may infer about the book may not be anything like what another person is thinking. In fact, it may be the polar opposite. In order to avoid conflict with editors, readers, and publishing houses, the best thing to do in any book review is to include as little content about the book as possible. That being the criteria, this book review is as close to perfection as any reviewer could ever hope.

Umberto Eco's collection of essays, How to Travel with a Salmon, is available from your local Harcourt Brace publicist. Just ask.

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