A book review review review

2020 January 23

Recently I read with interest Scott Alexander’s book review review of Dormin111’s book review of Lenora Chu’s book Little Soldiers, and I wanted to share my impressions of Alexander’s book review review for the benefit of prospective readers.

Alexander’s book review review opens with the highlights of the “plot” of the book review, which summarizes the “plot” of the non-fiction book, including such tantalizing details as:

When Lenora sat in on a kindergarten class, she witnessed an art lesson where the students were taught how to draw rain. The nice teacher drew raindrops on a whiteboard, showing precisely where to start and end each stroke to form a tear-drop shape. When it was the students’ turns, they had to perfectly replicate her raindrop. Over and over again. Same start and end points. Same curves. For an hour.

before Alexander segues into a comparison of the experiences described in depth by Chu with analogous systems in other countries. While the normative purpose of a book review review would be for the benefit of prospective readers of the book review, the book review review places its greater emphasis on this latter comparison and the author’s eventually unsuccessful attempts to elucidate the costs and benefits of running an economy by a hypothetical mash-up of Otto von Bismarck and Voldemort: in fact, he even explicitly says “But I want to use these excerpts as a jumping-off point”. The putative book review review serves more as a framing device for his own interest in continuing and contributing to the discussion begun in the book and book review, much as this book review review review is largely a framing device for exploring recursive sentence structures.

For me, the most salient experience in reading this book review review is not to spark interest or discussion in the specific book review being reviewed, but rather the exploration of the genre of book review reviews that I had not encountered before. My first point of comparison upon reading this book review review was book reviews, such as Alexander’s excellent book review of David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which I excerpt here:


  1. They were among the first to replace the set of bows, grovels, nods, meaningful looks, and other British customs of acknowledging rank upon greeting with a single rank-neutral equivalent – the handshake.

  2. Pennsylvania was one of the first polities in the western world to abolish the death penalty.

  3. The Quakers were lukewarm on education, believing that too much schooling obscured the natural Inner Light. Fischer declares it “typical of William Penn” that he wrote a book arguing against reading too much.

If you have not read this book review of Albion’s Seed, I strongly suggest you put down the book review review and this book review review review to read it and learn about the cultural history of the early immigrants to the US and the residues of their influence in modern society.

However, on reflection, a much more natural comparison for book review reviews as a literary art form would be the genre of fictitious book reviews, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote:

Up to this point […] we have the visible part of Menard’s works in chronological order. Now I will pass over to that other part, which is subterranean, interminably heroic, and unequalled, and which is also – oh, the possibilities inherent in the man! – inconclusive. This work, possibly the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part One of Don Quixote and a fragment of the twenty-second chapter. I realize that such an affirmation seems absurd; but the justification of this “absurdity” is the primary object of this note. (I also had another, secondary intent – that of sketching a portrait of Pierre Menard.)

Or perhaps, for an example that has been formative for me, Borges’s An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain:

An indecipherable assassination takes place in the initial pages; a leisurely discussion takes place toward the middle; a solution appears in the end. Once the enigma is cleared up, there is a long and retrospective paragraph which contains the following phrase: “Everyone thought that the encounter of the two chess players was accidental.” This phrase allows one to understand the solution is erroneous. The unquiet reader rereads the pertinent chapters and discovers another solution, the true one. The reader of this singular book is thus forcibly more discerning than the detective.

Borges uses reviews of fictitious books as a framing device to present his clever ideas for structures of books without the herculean work of writing such a book or compelling the reader to suffer through the repetition and filler necessary to realize such a structure as actual text. I regret I find that the non-fiction^3 book review review discussed here does not compare favorably with these examples from Borges of fiction reviews of fictitious books, although that is likely a consequence of my choosing for comparison the highlights of the genre as written by an author I greatly enjoy.

The book review review’s review of the book review, as well as its discussion of the topics in the book and book review, may have been impaired by the author’s not having read the book that was reviewed by the book review that was reviewed by the book review review. How can he assess whether child torture has an effect on adult creativity when his understanding of Chu’s unique perspective may have been tinted by a game of Telephone? And, central to the purpose of a book review review, how can he assess whether the book review may have itself been impaired in some way in its assessment of the book? However, it is difficult for me to assess this potential impairment as I have read neither the book review nor the book.

8 / 10 would read again

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