The Sunday Post for December 29, 2019

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

The rise of review culture

Because I’m on the receiving line for pitches to this publication, I’m in a constant state of reflection on what “book review” means for the Seattle Review of Books. It’s hard to turn down a pitch, but not nearly as hard as it is to kill a piece once it’s drafted, so getting that initial assessment right is a gift to myself and to the writer.

Others here may disagree (I’ll let you know if there are cries of dissent), but reviews that promise primarily to recommend for or against most often don’t make my cut. I’m interested in what a writer thought or felt about a book, certainly, but I’m more interested in what the book made the writer think or feel about the world, or about books writ large, or about themselves.

Yes, there are many smart, interesting, well-written reviews that assess the quality of a writer or a particular work — on this site and elsewhere. But for me the bar to acceptance is set much higher when the writer offers to assess rather than to explore.

In this essay, Tom Henry articulates some of the “why” behind this semi-conscious prejudice, and how the culture of too-much-choice leads to a culture of reviewing that is (again, arguably) stripped of what makes reviews worth reading. A book review isn’t a buyer’s guide. It’s an act of examination, of revelation, of conversation with a reader — just like the books that are its subject. As Henry puts it, speaking of his genre, not ours, “clothing is sterile without stories, community, and things that excite the heart as much as they do the mind.”

Anyway, here’s Tom Henry.

The thing about review culture is that the promise of finding “the best” is never fulfilled. For one, the best doesn’t exist — particularly in fashion, which is subjective. Second, too many people lean on the idea of buying "the best” to abdicate responsibility in developing a sense of taste. But most importantly, the reason why we never find the best is because that gnawing urge that compels us to find it in the first place is never satisfied.
The secret life of the audiobook star

Tim Dowling takes an insider’s look at what it takes to voice an audiobook: hours of lonely, throat-drying, brain-breaking work that drives many authors to their knees. (Bill Bryson: “I can’t help but feel … that I should be able to pronounce the words in my own book.”) Delightfully geeky on process — e.g., how readers track the voices they’ve chosen for different characters — and art — e.g., the serendipity of discovering Dobbie in a small, insolent boy on an elevator.

I narrated my own audiobook in 2014, an experience that I described at the time as being akin to an exorcism: three long days in a dark room, tripping through the minefield of my own words. All I could think was: if I’d known I was going to have to say this whole book out loud, I would have written a better one. Or maybe I wouldn’t have written one at all.
Diary: Alan Bennett

Absolutely, quintessentially Oxford-educated English: playwright, screenwriter, actor, and by coincidence (see above) reader of audiobooks for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh offers up selections from his journals over the course of 2019. Here’s what Bennett was thinking on our independence day. So English. So delightful. Also, what better way to avoid having one’s diaries shredded than to publish them in the LRB? Just saying …

_4 July._ A letter from the Philip Larkin Society, reminding me that I’m an honorary vice-president, which I was unaware of. I’ve never been an enthusiastic member, partly because Larkin wasn’t particularly keen on my stuff or keen on my being keen on his (which I am); Amis (K.) very much of the same mind. It wasn’t this, though, that put me off. What made me dubious about the society was the degree of enthusiasm felt by the members, with all the poetic locations pinpointed and Larkin clasped ever more tightly to the bosom of Hull (along with his sister and his cousins and his aunts). The risk is admittedly slight, but I am fearful of such detailed posthumous scrutiny. I don’t want to be Hullified, though I hope I wouldn’t do what Larkin did and have my diaries shredded when the breath has scarcely left my body.