Feb 7, 2009

Ayn Rand on writing book reviews

"In 1969," editor Robert Mayhew says, "Ayn Rand gave a course on nonfiction writing to . . . friends and associates" who might become writers for her magazine, The Objectivist.[1] The course, edited, now appears in book form as The Art of Nonfiction. One small part of her course focuses on writing book reviews, an important element of her magazine dedicated to applying philosophy to contemporary culture. Following are my notes from the first half of Chapter 9, "Book Reviews and Introductions," plus a few comments.

What is a book review? I would say a book review is an essay that describes the essential nature of a particular book and evaluates it. A book review presents both facts and values--what a book is and what it is worth.

Why write a book review? The general reason for reviewing a book is to announce to a certain audience that a particular book exists. As a reviewer, you could also have special purposes. For example, you might want to encourage a particular writer by publicizing his book, thus increasing its sales and influence.[2] I can see at least two other special motivations. First, to save your audience from wasting time and money, you might occasionally review a book that is wildly popular and seductively advertised, but has an undeserved reputation. Second, you might want to write an informal review for yourself as a way of recording your thoughts about a book that will probably be important to you throughout your career. For example, a student of history planning to teach someday might want to write an informal book review of a classic history text such as the seminal work, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, by Arthur O. Lovejoy. As another example, an author writing a book of his own might informally review each work he frequently cites--as a way of preparing for discussions of his sources with critics in his field. (Upper level undergraduate, as well as graduate, students of history will recognize these informal reviews as resources for writing a bibliographic essay to accompany a thesis or dissertation.)

What are the main components of a book review? Generally, a book review mostly describes the essential nature of the book: What is the book's subject? Its theme? Its style? Its approach (for example, tutorial or scholarly)? The review should not recapitulate the book, following it step by step, and should not misrepresent the book by reporting nonessentials while ignoring essential characteristics.

Use quotations from the reviewed book as proof statements. Ideally, the quotations will show the book's subject matter, theme, style, and approach, thus confirming what you have said and earning the reader's trust. A major problem, however, is finding quotations that serve those purposes but are also brief and representative of the whole book.

The second major component of a book review, after describing its nature, is your evaluation of the book. Is it a "good" book--if so, for whom and why?[3] Any evaluation, I think, should be backed up quickly with facts and reasons. "Good" alone is floating. More precise terms would be more helpful: "informative," "thoughtful," and "objective" are examples, if established in the text of a full review.

The third major component of a book review is a brief sketch of "the book's philosophical and stylistic flaws." Indicate the author's errors that might confuse a less experienced reader of the book. Do not debate the author or propagandize ("A review is not a polemic," Ayn Rand says), but instead briefly refer the reader to other works that offer a correct view.[4]

What are pitfalls for novice book reviewers? One pitfall in writing book reviews is focusing--without telling your readers what you are doing--on a small element of a book because it is especially interesting to you but is not representative of the book as a whole.[5] A second pitfall is telling an author of a book how you think he should have written it. To do so is a context-dropping act of arrogance.[6] A third pitfall is failing to make clear to your reader when you are speaking for yourself (in evaluating the book) and when you are speaking for the author (by describing the book). This difficulty arises frequently because, rather than presenting a block of facts followed by a block of evaluations, an effective book review usually interweaves descriptions with evaluations.[7]

In summary, an objective book review tells and shows readers what a book is and what value it has.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] The course was recorded and, many years later, transcribed and edited. The result is Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, editor Robert Mayhew, New York, Penguin/Plume, 2001. For the Mayhew quotation: p. xi. To buy the book: http://www.aynrandbookstore. [2] For Rand's purposes in reviewing books in The Objectivist: ANF, pp. 145-146. [3] For Rand's comments on the first two major components of a book review: ANF, pp. 147-149. [4] For describing a book's flaws: ANF, pp. 149-150. For not using a book review to propagandize: ANF, p. 152. [5] For the reviewer needing to say he is giving special attention to a minor part of the book: ANF, pp. 148-149. [6] For stating flaws and offering possible solutions, rather than prescribing the way an author should have written a book: ANF, pp. 150-151. [7] For distinguishing but interweaving description and evaluation: ANF, pp. 151-152.

9 comments:

Roberto 'Tito' Sarrionandia said...

Thanks for this - I've favourited the page and would like to have a crack at a book review sometime in the near future.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I hope my summary is useful.

Of course, I should say for anyone in my audience who has not yet studied The Art of Nonfiction, a summary is not a substitute for the original when studied closely.

Tenure said...

"Of course, I should say for anyone in my audience who has not yet studied The Art of Nonfiction, a summary is not a substitute for the original when studied closely."

As I am discovering in the OAC. Just reading the book through once, is nothing on the systematic, week-by-week process in which we go through Ayn Rand's method.

I highly recommend to your readers that they set themselves a task, if they choose to read the book, of, for each chapter, doing an exercise related to the chapter.
For example, our first exercise was, on the cusp of Ayn Rand talking about clarity, to write a short description of a mundane activity. The goal of the activity is to focus one's mind of thinking about the essential points of something, and to describe them clearly and succinctly.

TAO:NF (another acronym for the pile) is a great guide not only, I might add, for writing, but for clear, structured thinking.

Daniel said...

Burgess:

Great post. Thanks!

Tenure:

I second your statements on the benefits of reading (good authors) systematically.

I took a course with Jean Moroney on "condensing an essay" and in that course we went through OPAR, condensing each paragraph into a particular thought.

That was illuminating because I had already read OPAR maybe twice already, because Peikoff is a very clear writer, and yet I still gained so much simply by slowing the process down and identifying the essential points.

After doing that, the logical order became much more clear as well as much easier to remember. And it has helped me with my writing ever since.

Tenure said...

People like Jean Moroney make me wish I lived in America, to take the benefit of their courses. :D

Burgess Laughlin said...

The rules of comment etiquette in Making Progress are very unusual and very strict. I want to remind commenters of those rules (Nov. 18, 2007 post):

I do allow exceptions, as this comment thread shows, where I have some means of identifying the commenter, where the message supports objective values, and where I infer the commenter is in the rare position of needing shelter from adverse political or professional reactions.

Reminders for all readers of Making Progress:

1. Please use your name in an identifiable and distinguishable manner (e.g., Burgess L), even if only at the end of the text of the comment, or at least provide a link to a profile detailed enough that someone who already knows you can identify you.

2. Please do not name other commenters. The rationale for that--which has been supported by my experience in Study Groups for Objectivists--is that it completely eliminates the possibility of interpersonal conflicts, which sometimes arise from initially benevolent exchanges.

Beyond all that, I greatly appreciate the comments I have received. They are thought-provoking, and that is what I am here for. Furthermore, the level of commentary I have received provides grounds for hope in a better world in the future.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Jean Moroney's website, for Thinking Directions, is here:

http://www.thinkingdirections.com

Tenure said...

My apologies, I'll remember to use my full name from now on.

-Rory Hodgson

Jean Moroney said...

Thank you for the mentions of my work.

I agree with the analysis of book recommendations in the main article. The criteria ensure both that the final report is objective, and that it is writeable.

Ironically, I had terrible writer's block writing a recommendation for The Art of Non-Fiction. I finally broke through when I limited who I was recommending the book to.

Perhaps that recommendation would be of interest to this list:

http://www.thinkingdirections.com/articles.htm#aynrand

Sincerely,
Jean Moroney
jm@thinkingdirections.com