I’ve been asked this question a few times. What Would The Founders Think doesn’t enjoy a massive readership and doesn’t attain the level of sophistication one can find in the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, Modern Age, or First Things, to name a few excellent publications that feature book reviews.
Clearly ego doesn’t factor in.
The motivation for me to write reviews came from a couple sources and realizations. Years ago I read a book by Mortimer Adler called, appropriately enough – How To Read a Book. In it, Adler describes the process for delving into a book that might be considered “difficult.” He maintains that for anything worthwhile, work is required. To really get the meaning of a book on a difficult subject, one has to chew on it – e.g. really work at it. But the effort spent is worthwhile – the next time one approaches a book – it becomes a little bit easier.
I started putting some of the techniques Adler advocated into practice – the hardest for me was to mark up a book. I always feel like I am defacing something of value. In reality, I’ve grown to understand that this process is part of making the book own’s own. There are books I cannot bring myself to mark up, because they are exceptionally well produced, and attractive in their own right. But, for the most part, I have overcome this reticence, and I wish I had done so long ago. A book with underlines or highlights and notes is much more useful than one not so personalized, especially when referring back to at a later date. I have, on occasion skimmed through a marked up book and refreshed my memory. And I find that when reading book marked up by a thoughtful reader, I pay more attention to the observations made by that reader. It’s not distracting, but adds it’s own value and makes me look more closely at what the previous reader though worth highlighting. (Readers of Kindle books may have experienced this.)
And that is another reason for taking the time to compose a review. I find that by taking the time to work through a review – thinking about related books – going through the notes and highlights I placed in the book I’m reviewing, I gain a better understanding than first I had. It also helps me retain more of what I’ve read. All of these things are part of Adler’s recommendations in How To Read a Book. Taking the time to write a review is a forcing function that ensures I go through the process.
Another inspiration for writing reviews is the old practice of creating copybooks. In the 17th and 18th centuries when books were scarce, people would copy down whole sections of books before relinquishing them. Today, with the advent of mass publishing and the internet, almost everything is available almost instantaneously. Ironically, comparatively few avail themselves of the bounty. Scarcity had a way of conveying value that abundance does not.
Finally, a realization of mortality has affected my reading. I’m not going to have time to read all the things I want to read, were I to live to be 100 years old. Some books are worth re-reading, but better that I should retain more and have to re-read less. Being able to read a carefully constructed review I’ve written years before, is one way to help alleviate the inevitable diminution of memory that comes with time. When I couple reading an old review with skimming through the notes and highlights I left in a book, it’s a decent compromise.
There you have it. That’s why I write reviews. For me. I am gratified when someone takes the time to comment on review, that they found it useful, interesting or even aggravating, but that’s a secondary benefit.