Owls, Livestock, and Book Reviews

Want to know my opinion on book reviews? Of course you do. That’s why you’re here.

After reading all the links on the topic over at Literary Citizenship, I realized that a lot of people have a lot different opinions on what makes a good book review.


I think there’s a common one: explanation.

It seems like everyone agrees that a good book review shouldn’t say just how the reviewer feels, but why they feel that way. In one article, Charles Baxter calls this unexplained kind of reviewing “Owl Criticism,” saying,

…quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.’

Because I am who I am, and I have trouble NOT linking a topic to agriculture, let me provide a farm-related example.

Growing up, I was a member of the Deleware County 4-H Livestock Judging Team, an extracurricular requiring the same kind of explanations of decision making.

For those of you who don’t know, livestock judging involves looking at groups of livestock (sheep, cattle, or hogs), and ranking each individual based on physical traits. Typically, once you have a ranking figured out (first, second, third, and fourth), you compose what’s called a “set of reasons,” which is a memorized speech describing each animal and the reason it got the placing it did.

It’s in the sets of reasons that each competitor is required to provide necessary explanations of their decisions. Take for example, this pair of sheep:

Ram #2
North American International Livestock Expo
Shown by Jeff McDaniel, Arlington, IN

You can say that number two is better than number one, but not without explaining that it is structurally sound, being leveler along its top, stouter boned, and more correct in its pasterns (its back ankles). However, at the same time, number one is deeper through its chest floor and ribs, and more structurally correct on its front end (paying attention to the way its chest, shoulders, and neck fit together).

If you didn’t understand much of that, that’s okay. The point is that book reviews, to me, are like judging livestock. The most important part requires paying attention to not only how you feel, but why you feel that way, both negatively and positively.

What do you think, my few followers that are out there, is the most important part of reviewing books?


About jekcarter

Farmer/Writer/Editor/Advocate for the Imaginary
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2 Responses to Owls, Livestock, and Book Reviews

  1. blackonmanilla says:

    I think you hit on what’s important in this one. Reviews need to have concrete reasons as to why the reviewer liked or disliked a work. Explanation is a keyword in this case.

  2. Cathy Day says:

    Reblogged this on Literary Citizenship and commented:
    John Carter uses livestock judging as a metaphor to talk about reviewing books. This is Indiana, folks.

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