A Short History Of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline | The Awl
There have been enough essays on the death of book reading, but have there been enough words devoted to discussing the decline of book reviewing? In the last decade or so—yes, indeed, as we’ve all wrestled with how the internet influences everything we do, including reading, writing, and writing about books (Tolstoy LOL tl;dr). But while the words “book-review” made its first print appearance as a headline in 1861 to just that—a review of a book titled How to Talk: A Pocket of Speaking, Conversation, and Debating (verdict: “The present work has the additional recommendation of an unmistakably useful subject, which is lucidly treated”)—the practice of criticizing the critics has always been with us. Most often, dissatisfaction with the state of book reviewing has come not from the readers who are the reviewers’ intended audience, but from writers who have felt their work mishandled, unjustly ignored, or cruelly misunderstood.
Launched in 1665, the Parisian Journal des Sçavans (“sçavans,” a word related to “savant,” and denominating a version of the French “scholar”) was the first publication devoted entirely to the task of criticism. Its aim was “to give readers (and scholars) a universal account of the state of learning,” with reviews “conceived of as installments of a continuous encyclopaedia to be carried on until the end of time.” The vision here was broad and expansive. In its pursuit of compiling scientific knowledge, Journal des Sçavans focused on objectivity; the reviews largely aimed to document findings, discoveries, and inventions in the world of biology and technology.