Eschewing Poignant Book Reviews: Compelling New York Times Blogger Muses About Lyrical Vocabulary

I have recently been asked to review two books for the Association of Christian Librarians. Now I’m concerned. According to Bob Harris, a contributor to Paper Cuts: A Blog About Books by the editors of the New York Times Book Review, I should not use any of the following words:

poignant: Something you read may affect you, or move you. That doesn’t mean it’s poignant. Something is poignant when it’s keenly, even painfully, affecting. When Bambi’s mom dies an adult may think it poignant. A child probably finds it terrifying.

compelling: Many things in life, and in books, are compelling. The problem is that too often in book reviews far too many things are found to be such. A book may be a page turner, but that doesn’t necessarily make it compelling. Overuse has weakened a word that implies an overwhelming force.

Reviewers often combine these first two words. Like Chekhov’s gun. If there is a poignant in a review’s third paragraph, a compelling will most likely follow. Frequently reviewers forestall the suspense and link the words right away, as in “this poignant and compelling novel…”

intriguing: It doesn’t mean merely interesting or fascinating although it’s almost always used in place of one of those words. When it is, the sense of something illicit and mysterious is lost.

eschew: No one actually says this word in real life. It appears almost exclusively in writing when the perp is stretching for a flashy synonym for avoid or reject or shun.

craft (used as a verb): In “The Careful Writer,” Theodore M. Bernstein reminds us that “the advertising fraternity has decided craft is a verb.” Undeterred, reviewers use it when they are needlessly afraid of using plain old write. They also try to make pen a verb, as in “he penned a tome.”

muse (used as a verb): Few things in this world are mused. They are much more often simply written, thought or said. “War is hell,” he mused. Not much dreamy rumination there.

Stretching for the fanciful — writing “he crafts or pens” instead of “he writes”; writing “he muses” instead of “he says or thinks” — is a sure tip-off of weak writing.

lyrical: Reviewers use this adjective when they want to say something is well written. But using the word loosely misses the sense of expressing emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way. Save lyrical for your next review of Wordsworth.

I think we should probably add a few more to the list — especially when reviewing works of theology. My list of words and phrases to avoid when reviewing a book:

  1. Timely. Timeliness is good. But it does not automatically render the work a good treatment of the issue. A cheeseburger can be timely, though I would rather have a timely cheeseburger made from quality beef on a sourdough bun than a happy meal from McDonalds. Currency is not enough.
  2. A valuable contribution. But so is my employer’s valuable yearly contribution to my retirement annuity. Please tell me what this author has to say to bring clarity to the issue or which moves the discussion forward.
  3. Accessible. You mean cheap? The library has many copies? What?
  4. Rivettingly interesting. I actually saw this on a back-cover blurb recently. The book was on Baptist Ecclesiology. Riveting? I think not. The real question is, “But is it Accessible?”
  5. A uniquely helpful resource. Like Liquid Nails – it does the job but without all that old-fashioned hammering.
  6. Brilliantly conceived. I.e., “I wish I had thought of this instead.”
  7. A welcomed contribution to the field. Welcome to the club, Mr. Author. You have passed the test and we can now teach you the secret hand shake.

Please leave your additions to this list in the comments.

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