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A cursory glance at the bibliography on my Web site shows that I write many book reviews. The feedback I receive suggests that I do this well and that the reviews are appreciated both by the authors who are being reviewed and by my audience. So it seems worthwhile spending a few moments to share how I review a book to produce something that is both fair to the author and appropriate for my audience.

When I begin a review, I start by trying to understand the author’s stated goal and the audience for whom this goal is relevant. This provides important context for the review, since it’s unfair to (for example) review a self-proclaimed comedy as if it were a tragedy—unless, of course, the author was completely blind to irony and completely misunderstood what they were actually writing. (This does sometimes happen.) Because I am reviewing the book for my own readers, I spend a few moments figuring out how what the author has attempted to achieve relates to the needs of my audience. That provides focus for the review because it tells me what points I must emphasize to make the review relevant to my readers—a kind of lagniappe to what the author is providing to their own audience, since it broadens the appeal of their book. For example, I’m currently reviewing a book on the concept of system that is written primarily for readers who are experts in the field of cultural studies. However, the history of systems-based thinking is also relevant to the audience for my review (technical communicators), so I’m looking for ways to make the subject relevant to that audience too.

Having defined the relationship between the author’s goals and those of the one or more audiences, the hard work begins: trying to pin down the essential message or messages the author is trying to communicate. As I read, I keep a notepad with me so I can record notes—often copious notes—about what the author has done and how it relates to their various audiences. But I also record things that interest me, since a good book should excite the reader by teaching them new things, even when those things are not central to the author’s goals, or leading them down intriguing paths they haven't yet explored. In my case, my goal is to look for insights that I can share with my own audience. (More on this latter point anon.) As I take notes, I summarize what I’ve read, boiling down hundreds of words or even whole chapters into a few key points that will fit within the constraints provided by my editor and eventual publisher. This usually means 500 words, and rarely more than 750 words even when the authors has many important things to say. Where a book is too fascinating to fit within these constraints, I’ll usually create a longer and more comprehensive review on my blog. If the author has a particularly pungent or exciting turn of phrase, I’ll record it to provide some sense of the author’s thought process, unique insights, or sense of style.

When I’ve jotted enough notes to justify some time at the computer, I transcribe my notes into Word, reshaping the recorded version of my thoughts (which have fermented into tasty and potentially intoxicating liquor) as I fit them into preliminary groups of related ideas. This grouping process often follows the logical sequence in the book itself, but more often, because of the need to simplify hundreds of pages of thoughts into a few hundred words, I need to develop a new sequence that makes sense of the vastly condensed body of information I’m creating. I build in transitions among the groups as I work, to remind myself how one group of thoughts leads inevitably to the next.

The end result of this, once I’ve finished reading the book, is a long (often very long) list of thoughts that must be summarized by boiling down several thousand words into the few hundred I’ve been allotted by my editor. This is a process of identifying the key points both for the author and for me. Many of these points are never explicitly stated by the author, and are instead revealed by synthesizing widely scattered notes that did not, initially, seem to belong in the same group of ideas. I find this process of examining a large body of information fascinating, holding it all in my head simultaneously as I try to integrate it with what I already know and what new and exciting things I’ve learned along the way. And once I’ve got that task under control, I strip away the superfluous flesh to reveal the bones that support the whole structure. Along the way, I try to communicate why something that might not seem immediately relevant to my audience actually offers them a considerable reward for sticking with me for those few hundred words.

Why do I do this? Because I try to choose books that will stretch my brain in directions it hasn’t been stretched by my usual preoccupations, including my daily work. I learn so much new along the way, and the learning process is so exciting (often rekindling my enthusiasm for a subject that has grown a tad too familiar), that I feel an irresistable urge to share that excitement with others. The process of collecting data, organizing it into a system, and boiling it down to a synthesis that gives the book relevance, enriches me—and hopefully my readers. In many cases, I share the results of those musing with as many people as I can via the bibliography on my Web site. The best reward for this effort is when I see the light turn on in someone else’s eyes and I know that I’ve stretched someone else’s brain and kindled some of the same excitement that I felt.
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