On Blurbs

About a year-and-a-half ago now (God, time flies!), my dear friend, the Honorable Reverend Esteban Vázquez wrote a post entitled, “On Blurbing (Or, ‘This Is the Best Book To Appear since the Invention of Writing’),” in which he details the sheer ridiculousness of book blurbs and their utter lack of worth in telling readers anything about the books they endorse.  I have to concur with his general sentiment.  I’ve never been big on book blurbs in general but sometimes I’ll read one and wonder whether or not the person blurbing has actually read the book they’re commenting on.  More times than not I have to conclude that they haven’t.  So I wonder, are blurbers expected to have actually read the books they endorse, or are they just expected to lend their name to a project regardless of their familiarity with it?

What brought this to mind was thinking back on a video I saw of Pastor Mark Dever giving a tour of his study, in which there was a stack of manuscripts that he was given to read for review and/or endorsement, a rather large stack numbering (by my estimate) thousands of pages.  I thought it nearly impossible to actually read all those manuscripts on top of all the reading he’d have to do for his own writing projects, his pastoral work, and his general  keeping up with current events.  Add to that familial responsibilities and sleep and it jumps from nearly impossible to simply impossible.

But this gives me reason to believe that there are many others, like Dever, who are busy and are given thousands upon thousands of pages to read and endorse, who unfortunately can’t read them all, skim just enough to be dangerous, and end up writing positive endorsements for books that are otherwise good forth nothing other than kindling.1 Incidentally, as the Hon. Rev. Vázquez has also pointed out with prophetic discernment,  this seems to be an issue with some bloggers who review books as well.  Esteban deserves to be quoted at length on this point:

Somewhere along the way (rather early on, if my cynicism may be trusted), some publishers realized that, since many of us turn to the internet to search for reviews of books we do not know, this was a very effective marketing strategy—particularly in view of the fact that many bloggers, unaware of the long history of journal reviews described above, feel that it is their bounden duty to speak of the books they have received only in glowing terms. Some have gone so far as to hastily review books they have not read (!), while others have resorted to writing two-paragraph “reviews” that amount to little more than a glorified blurb. In these cases, the haste is usually related to a misplaced desire to comply with the time limits of a marketing campaign, while the invariably positive review is tied to misguided gratitude for the free book received. In these cases, one might indeed say that an advertiser has effectively bought a glowing endorsement for the measly price of book production and shipping.

And that, my friends, is the gospel truth!  And so my advice to both blurbers and reviewers who endorse works that they haven’t actually read is this: stop it!  We can tell and we don’t appreciate it.  You’re not doing yourselves, your friends whose books you endorse, or the publishers who provide you with books for review, any favors.

1 N.B. that I am not saying that Mark Dever has written any such blurbs or is guilty of skimming and blurbing/reviewing.  I can’t recall ever reading a blurb that he’s written.  It was simply the thought of the video tour of his study that brought this to mind.

B”H

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11 thoughts on “On Blurbs

  1. Rarely if ever has my computer monitor been graced with so wise a post as this. It glows before me as a blessing, each line wiser than the one before. If you read only one blog post this year, “On Blurbs” is the one you should read. Even if you don’t have a computer, it is worth getting one just so that you can read this post. With this post, the internet has found its justification for existing. Nick and Esteban have done it again! Unsurpassable (until their next one)!!!

  2. Yes!!! It’s better to read one book from start to finish and give a honest opinion than more and fake it. I prefer that!

  3. I love book blurbs!
    My problem with many (not all) of the reviews I read on blogs as that I think they’re basically useless. They don’t really tell me anything useful in terms of whether i want to spend my money and my time on that book. They’re too nice. They hardly ever want to level real criticism against a book, they don’t want to step on toes or offend, and they act like every book is somehow important or makes a significant contribution to its field and would be a good purchase. I would like to see more book reviews that are like product reviews: after a short description of the main arguments and some critical interaction then give a rating and some pros and cons. It would also be helpful to know how they think it compares to similar books on the same topic.

    Good post.

  4. It does makes a difference to me whether a book is endorsed by Bono or Bauckham.
    Admittedly I pay more attention to the blurber and affiliation than the content of the blurb which is indeed often silly.

    I always skim the blurbs when I’m unacquainted with an authors work. It gives me sense of the general theological positioning and how narrow or broad its appeal and aspirations plus a hint as to the level of scholarship.

  5. Katia: Me too!

    Bryan: Book blurbs are like the written version of cats, i.e., they’re the devil incarnate (on paper). ;-)

    I agree with you. A lot of blog reviews are basically useless. The reason, of course, is that the bloggers don’t read the books. They read the first and last page of each chapter, offer some pseudo-summary of what they think the chapter is saying, and say that it was the greatest book to be written since the invention of writing (that is, until they fake the next “review,” and then that book is the greatest to ever be written). But truth be told, I’ve come across a couple of useless RBL reviews in my day too.

    Kim: I go by bibliographies, not blurbs. When an author whose work I’m unfamiliar with is cited in the bibliographies of a lot of authors’ work who I am familiar with then I have a reason to believe that they’re worth reading. But every author has friends who would endorse something for them just because they wrote it; not necessarily because it’s good.

    And I look for the publisher’s summary/description of the book as well as the table of contents to get a feel for what the book is supposed to be about and what level it’s written at. You can’t always get that from the blurbs, and not surprisingly so, because not all blurbers have actually read the book!

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