Others are not so sure. “It’s not a decline,” insists Louis Menand, a frequent book reviewer for The New Yorker. “It’s a shift.” He points to what he calls the “Zagatization” of book reviewing—a process spearheaded by Amazon, where a prospective reader may be offered thousands of capsule assessments of a particular title. Assigned a book review not long ago, Menand logged on to the e-commerce site to find twenty-five customer reviews already posted. “I suddenly felt very unnecessary,” he laughs. The days when figures like Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann ruled the critical (or political) roost are long gone, Menand says. “And that’s good in principle,” he adds, “because it means that more people are writing on more products.”
Purists might blanch at this demotion of books to mere product, but Mustich takes the argument a step further, asserting that the success of BNR turns the dire prophecies on their heads. “It’s a sign of cultural energy that a book chain is supporting a venture with credibility,” he says.
Mustich suggests that print reviews have assisted in digging their own graves. A major reason that they’re dying, he believes, is that they’re boring. “They didn’t engage readers in a fresh way,” he says. “Many [print] reviews are formulaic, focusing more on assessments than on replicating the excitement of reading a book.” Mustich also faults the analytical slant taken by many reviewers, which may cause them to overlook the fact that readers love books even when they’re not perfect.
Whether the print review makes a comeback or slinks off to oblivion, Mustich thinks the act of reading itself is in healthy shape. “There is a tendency in the book industry to see the decline of print as due to people reading less,” he says. “But I think people are reading more.”
The numbers seem to belie Mustich’s optimism. A 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that despite rising education levels and the ubiquity of Twilight and Harry Potter, citizens are reading less—in almost every age group. More and more Americans are declining to read even a single book per year. If we are to believe these statistics, book reviews may be dying simply because people read less of everything.
True, the NEA report was criticized for what some considered its flawed methodology. In particular, noted Steven Johnson in the Guardian, the report was “heavily biased towards words on a printed page,” versus their online counterparts. The NEA fired back, pointing out that the study was careful to measure online reading habits as well as consumption of the printed page—the trends were still disturbing. At the same time, the authors cited a British Library study highlighting the shallow analytical and critical skills associated with Web reading. “Society is dumbing down,” that report had bluntly concluded.
Score one for the pessimists! Or maybe not: fans of BNR would argue that merely by existing, it is a rebuke to those who fret that the book will soon be as obsolete as the phonograph. The online publication is not only surviving, it is growing, even flourishing. Mustich will not give specific figures, but in December 2009 the site reached 50,000 unique visitors, its highest number so far, according to Compete.com, a site that measures Web traffic. And Mustich is determined to tinker with the book-review form itself. “We’re going to experiment with slide shows and illustrated reviews,” he says, although it’s not clear how these multimedia accoutrements will revolutionize a supposedly moribund genre.
Indeed, what’s notable about BNR is how traditional the writing is. “The reviews [at BNR] work the same as anywhere else,” says Laura Miller, a staff writer at Salon who has also written for Mustich’s site. Miller says the tone and length of the pieces in BNR evoke The New York Times Book Review rather than the relative informality of Salon. So even if Mustich finds print reviewing dull, it’s not clear that his own site is doing anything differently when it comes down to actual prose.