On Book Reviewing 2006
Of my published reviews this past year, I was most proud of my piece on Richard Powers' novel, The Echo Makers, although not the review as it was published--as it appears here at Books in Heat. There were editorial changes I wasn't given the opportunity to see in advance that hurt the content a bit, but really (at least for me) hurt the writing. The rhythms are very important.
But I was pleased that when that novel was named a finalist for National Book Award for fiction, my review was linked from the official site. And gratified as well that the review by Margaret Atwood in the New York Review of Books echoed the theme my review started with: that Powers' should have received some major awards by now. And now he has: Powers' The Echo Makers won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.
That review was also one of only two published this year that I proposed (the other was Alan Wolfe's Does American Democracy Still Work?, a question that may have been answered in the affirmative by the 2006 election). The others were assignments--I seem to be the go-to guy at the SF Chronicle for science and technology books for a general audience, which is a little baffling considering all the actual science and techology people there are in the Bay Area who could write with more expertise, but maybe that's the point.
The major problem I had as a reviewer of nonfiction this year is the absense of indexes in bound galleys. The Chronicle wants to publish reviews very close to the book's pub date, which means reading the bound galleys that are available a few months ahead of time. No longer marked-up pages bound between generic-looking soft covers, galleys these days are cleaned-up versions packaged pretty much as they will appear in hardback. The photos don't look as good, but non-fiction books often include the author's notes and bibliography. What they don't include is precisely what reviewers--or this one anyway-- would find very useful: the index.
As I read the book I come upon passages that seem key and/or quotable, and I mark or note those. But I can't mark the whole book, and I don't always know until further along, or even until I've finished the book, which passages are going to be important, or memorable. An index would help me find what I'm looking for, when it comes time to write the review.
I don't see a technical or cost problem--if my computer can do an index on command, I expect theirs can. I don't know why they don't include an index, even if it's changed to reflect changes for publication. Maybe it's as crass as discouraging reviewers from selling the galleys to bookstores. But it's my most fervent plea for 2007--give me your indexes, for the sake of my tired poor eyes.