On the futility of reviewing old books

Or at least, old books that are out of print. Just how useful is reviewing books that only a small amount of people will be able to find and/or read? For instance, since I’ve started this blog I’ve reviewed a number of out-of-print books, including one that’s going for about $35 used. While some people might be willing to buy a $0.01 book from Amazon based on my review, who’s going to buy a $35 one? And that’s just if they can find it– I’ve reviewed at least one book that I’m pretty sure can’t be found anywhere except on Paperback Swap where I’ve put it (and where it’s been sitting for six months unrequested).

Out-of-print books, even ones that just recently went out of print, are tricky things to review. On the one hand, I know that giving the book some publicity is a good thing. On the other hand, when the book has been out of print for 30 years and no-one has read it and no-one but me is reviewing it, then I ask you: what’s the point? It’s almost as useless as a meme post, except that memes get at least a little conversation going.

I suppose my point is that I’m not sure what to do. I’ve got all these old books I dug up in library books sales and such, and I want to read them and review them, but I’m almost not sure it’s worth my time. I’m a book blogger, see, and I’ve been one for so long now that I’m associating reading a book with reviewing it. And then I associate reviews with blog readers, and then with comments and conversation. It’s turned into a kind of Pavlovian thing. So if I don’t review a book, then why the heck did I bother reading it in the first place? There’ll be nothing and to talk about and no-one to talk with except my own mnd. So I have to review it if I want that people connection, but if it’s an obscure book then and no-one else has read it and can’t find it to read– then– then–

Oh, I don’t know. I think I’ve wound myself into knots. There’s all that up there, but then on top of it I feel sort of bad for out-of-print obscure books that aren’t getting any publicity. It’s like they’ve been forgotten, and that’s terrible. But is it so terrible that it’s worth my time to read/review them? I don’t know.

Have I made any sort of sense here? What do you think about reviewing out-of-print books? It’s nearly completely different from reviewing old books that are still in print (classics, for instance). The fact that they’re old isn’t holding anyone back from reading/reviewing them because they’re available nearly everywhere. But an old book where only a few copies exist and they’re all horribly expensive? GAH. This is turning into madness.

The only bright point I can see is that if I do review old/obscure books and someone, one day, Googles the title because they found a copy and read it, too, then maybe a connection will have formed. But it’s an awful like throwing a note in a bottle out into the ocean.

Picture from Pictures from Old Books.

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0 thoughts on “On the futility of reviewing old books”

  1. I suppose it all depends on your purpose of writing the book review.

    As an example, I have started my blog with the main purpose to hold my thoughts on the books I’ve read, in order to help me remember them better over the years. As such, it is obvious that I would review any book I happened to read, regardless to its availability.

    On the other hand, if your purpose is mainly to help people discover new books to read, I can see how the fact that they may be out of print could be a bit of a bother. However I would vote for reviewing a book even if out-of-print, because who knows who happens to have a copy lost on a shelf somewhere, always planning to read it but never quite getting to it, and so your review would be the final nudge 🙂

    I can see how a review of a book that no one else has read can sort of hinder the discussion, however besides this (minor) inconvenience all I can see are advantages 🙂

    1. See, I write reviews for two purposes: to tell people about the book and maybe get them to read it, and to record my own impressions of it. They both have equal weight in my mind, but the “tell other people about it” thing is slightly more important because it’s why I blog. If I was just going to record my own thoughts and ignore who’s on the other end of things, I’d keep a book journal offline. The “tell people about it” thing (that hopefully flows into a “start a conversation” thing) is why I’m posting my reviews online and not just hording them in a notebook somewhere.

      That’s a good point about how someone might have a copy of the book already and just hasn’t read it. I get quite a few search engine hits for an OOP book from the 70s that I reviewed a while back– no one’s commented on it, but they must be Googling it for a reason, right? 😀

  2. I always hope, when I’m reading out-of-print books that I truly love, that someone else will have read it too! And then I will have someone to talk about it with. I like reading positive reviews of books that have been largely “forgotten”. It feels like finding buried treasure!

  3. I’ve been frustrated lately by the fact that most book blogs only seem to review new books, and many of them are all reviewing the same books at the same time. so I enjoy finding add some variety by reviewing older books. And even if a book is out of print, it’s usually still possible to find it being sold somewhere.

  4. I enjoy reading blogs that review obscure books, and I guess you could put out-of-print books in that same category. As Simcha said, I find it frustrating that several book blogs seem to read the same books (typically a symptom of book tours or receiving an advanced review copy) or books that were just printed.

    Personally, I read books that were just printed and books that were published years and years ago, and I found it so thrilling that after reading a book printed in 1974 people commented saying that they had never heard of the book but really wanted to get a copy and read it. My hope is that by reading books not mentioned on other blogs or featured prominently in bookstores or found on the bestsellers list, other people will find the hidden gems I have found.

  5. You bring up a good question. I think it’s worth reviewing the OOP books for a variety of reasons. S

    ometimes books go OOP because the publisher goes out of business or the publishing rights have reverted back to the author. Interest in an OOP book can motivate the author to trying to find a new publisher or new method of distributing their work. Or motivate a current publisher to print copies of the author’s older work.

    As a reader, I agree with Simcha that it’s good to see a variety in books on different blogs.

  6. If they are books you will read either way, and you just aren’t sure whether its worth writing a full-blown review, you could always just do a “thoughts on these books” post where you write a sentence or two about three or so books. Just enough to give the flavor and record your thoughts for reference.

  7. It is nice to read reviews of books that are not already covered by every other blog out there. So, I say bring it on with the OOP book reviews, it gives a blog more variety.

  8. I review a lot of old books whether OOP or not. You never know what will turn up in a book sale, a library, or on someones shelf. Sometimes reading a review about one book will alert me to look for that author as well and I’ve made a new find that way several times. Besides, I think all avid readers, like us, just love to read about books and authors, no matter when they were published.

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