Wanted: a different sort of book review


Mark Pack would like to hear more about books you thought you knew enough about – but probably didn’t.

A mere seven years after it came out, I’ve just finished reading (or more accurately, listening to) Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. In case you think I am a remarkably slow reader, I should add I also only started it seven years after it came out. Yet in that intervening time, I would always have named it if asked by someone ‘what’s a good book to read about science?’ So why my sloth?

Bad Science’s very success paradoxically both made it more and less relevant to read. The more successful a non-fiction book is, the more is said and written about it – and so the more superfluous actually reading it can seem. Once you have consumed enough about a book, it can feel that the time to actually read it will return very little. That is why, sorry Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise still remains unread by me. With Silver’s high media profile and regular blogging, it feels like his book will not add that much to what I have already consumed.

Yet such judgements can be wrong. In the case of Bad Science, much of it was very familiar territory, duplicating what I had already read and heard from Ben Goldacre through other mediums previously. Yet I do not regret the time I spent on it because – in addition to the quite wonderful narration of the audio book (take a bow, Rupert Farley) – there are some gems of practical detail about how to understand science stories in the media which has passed me by despite my, what I thought was, quite voracious consumption of other Ben Goldacre writings.

Add this to the impact of the digital age and I find myself increasingly wanting a different sort of book review.
The review written fresh on publication, appearing briefly in print before it hits the fish and chip paper afterlife, still has its value.

But with reviews lingering around online well beyond the initial publication date, with authors pumping out words in so many different channels that their books can feel more familiar now to non-readers, and with older books so easily available to buy online, there is a role for a different type of review. The one written a few years on from publication, based on the premise ‘you’ve heard a lot about this book – but is it still worth reading?’

Reviewers, please ready your keyboards and reach for the further corners of your bookcases for those books you thought worth keeping. Thank you.

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About Author Profile: Mark Pack

Mark Pack is a public relations expert, blogger and leading Liberal Democrat commentator. His website is here.

3 thoughts on “Wanted: a different sort of book review

  1. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    November 10, 2015 at 11:56

    The funny thing about Bad Science is that it has nothing to say about that major repository of bad science, ‘climate change’. Michael Mann’s ‘hockey stick’ is surely the biggest and most damaging example of Bad Science of our times – and yet Goldacre prefers to go for such harmless Aunt Sallies as Homeoepathy. The real problem is not that the newspapers are full of Bad Science – what else would you expect? – but that there is Bad Science embedded in respectable mainstream scientific practice.

  2. November 10, 2015 at 12:42

    I rarely bother reading popular science books or Gladwell-style ones because the reviews in the newspapers seem to do such a good job of summarising the central argument and then analysing whether it has any merit. This must be frustrating for the authors but it doesn’t seem to harm sales.

    I did enjoy some of Jon Ronson’s books (Psychopath Test; So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) in this genre because he makes them funny and novelistically suspenseful.

    • mark.pack@gmail.com'
      November 10, 2015 at 20:18

      That’s a good point Brit. Some of these non-fiction books are so entertaining that they become – in this respect – the same as a fiction book, i.e. enjoyable even if you already know what’s in the book. Just like no-one goes to a Shakespeare play and says, “That was sooooo boring, I already knew what was going to happen!”.

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