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In Search of a Good Read
Durham, NC - Book reviews aren't dying. They're going online.
Duke Press officials say more blogs and websites are emerging to fill some of the gaps left by vanishing newspaper and magazine book reviews sections and as chain bookstores reserve their most prominent displays for publisher-promoted books.
That's good news for book fans, who often find that the most difficult thing in finding great literature is learning what's new out there.
For those in the publishing industry, the sites are a much needed area of attention. Laura Sell, senior publicist at Duke University Press, says online media are increasingly important as she works to bring attention to more than 100 new titles every year. In some ways, she told The Chronicle of Higher Education recently, Duke Press probably gets more attention for its books than it did 10 years ago. "There's all these niche markets that are easier to reach," she says.
Sell is also taking advantage of the fact that some newspapers and magazines (The Washington Post and The New Yorker, for example) have more space online to mention university press books than they ever did in print. "We're trying to work with the new sites and keep up with the old," she says.
NPR is also trying to fill some of the void by expanding its book pages with more reviews, lists, special series (authors' "buttonhole" book picks) and sections ("Books We Like").
Among the new crop of book-review bloggers, most have focused on fiction. Doug Perkul, a former executive with the New York Times and SPIN magazine, hopes serious readers will turn to his new blog, Lit Mob, to find reviews posted by a small army of reviewers. There are also sections where artists and local bookstores list their top picks.
In January, The New Republic this month also started a book review site, noting that it wants to better fulfill its mission as "a journal of politics and the arts." It should be good for nonfiction and serious fiction, predicts Duke Press' Sell.
Beyond the web, there are still other sources. C-SPAN's weekend program of "Book TV" is rich in new titles and author videos. The show's website has been expanded to encompass a great online library of readings and book fair events that can make finding good books less of a chore.
There's also professional publications such as the Library Journal, a national library publication that reviews about 300 books an issue, mostly prior to publication.
University professors are another source. For example, behavioral economist Tyler Cowen at George Mason University shares thoughts on his favorite books on his blog.
Librarians at Duke say they often use proprietary services like Book Review Digest and specialty databases such as the Religious Studies Review to scan summarized book reviews and read "state of the field" reviews on an area of study. Fortunately, these are also databases that Duke computer users can access. The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement can also be accessed through the Duke Libraries website.
In addition to the subscription services, Divinity School librarian Roger Loyd uses the websites of online booksellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others) to get the sort of "feet-on-the-ground" reviews from lay readers that point him to books of permanent value. Amazon uploads both positive and negative reviews from sources like Publishers Weekly.
Loyd is also a fan of social media sites like LibraryThing, which the Wall Street Journal has called "a sort of MySpace for bookworms." Readers list their personal libraries and post short personal reviews of favorite books. Although there's a charge for listing more than 200 books, anyone can read the reviews. "People who post their lists often create their selections of recommended reading in a field, which can be discovered by some creative searching," says Loyd.
There are several new entries in this field, including Bookarmy, which uses the power of social networking to help you share and discover books based on your interests. Set up similar to the music service Pandora, BookLamp.org finds titles based on your reading history. weRead touts having helped more than three million readers discover "books, authors and friends."
Another boon to readers is basic web search. Librarian Loyd says he frequently turns to Google if he is looking for book reviews. "I often just type it into a search by author and title, or by ISBN, and then look at the first page or two of results and click through to the reviews," he says.
Still, until the web produces a "Grand Central Station" for book reviews, the best place to see a great sampling of reviews, at least of university-press fare, may be Laura Sell's own blog http://www.dukeupress.typepad.com/. This is where you'll find out how Duke books are affecting cultural and political thought, as well as listings of author events and great ideas for what to read next.
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