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Sam Kerbel: Top 3 Book Review Take-Downs

December 1, 2011

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A sample of this year’s most linguistically creative and intellectually exasperating spankings.

By **Sam Kerbel**

Literary-Takedown-575.jpgPhotograph via Wikimedia Commons.

One expects to find some unflattering critiques while perusing through the book review section. But every once in awhile, a review comes along that makes you thank whatever higher power you believe in that you didn’t have anything to do it. Such reviews dish out hyperbole so effectively that they convince you their subjects have no place in the pantheon of serious literature.

In the spirit of holiday curmudgeonry, here are three of the most scathing (and occasionally snarky) book reviews of 2011. This list is by no means exhaustive—include some of your own in the comments!—but the reviews listed below stand out in their linguistic creativity and display of intellectual exasperation.

#3 Review of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield, Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 2011)

Best quote: “Hefty helpings of corn-pone charm become leaden with down-home sanctimony.”

Quick take: Kirkus’ review of this “rural Christian heart-warmer set in 1956 southern Arkansas” ends on an emphatically sour note, but the best part would have to be its (perhaps unintentionally) amusing warning to readers: “Expect not only rape but also kitten murder.” Sounds like a winner.

#2 Peter Brooks reviews four books on the state of the modern university, The New York Review of Books (March 24, 2011)

Best quote: “[Universities] deserve better critics than they have got at present.”

Quick take: Brooks takes two of his four subjects to task, calling Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s book Higher Education? “self-consciously iconoclastic (and sometimes cranky)” and Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus “a New York Times Op-Ed from 2009 that hypertrophied into a book.” Luckily for the reader, he offers less abrasive criticism of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift and spares Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

#1 Sheri Berman reviews The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, The New York Times Book Review (October 7, 2011)

Best quote: The Reactionary Mind has higher intellectual ambitions than talk radio or the right-wing pulp nonfiction churned out by writers like Ann Coulter or Bernard Goldberg, but it ends up replicating their breathless Manichaean attitude.”

Quick take: The theme of Berman’s review is that Robin evinces the very conspiratorial mindset that permeates modern conservative thought. This piece resulted in a brief exchange between author and reviewer. Robin wrote on his blog that Berman misrepresented his arguments in such a way that “she writes as if she hasn’t read [the book],” to which Berman responded for Dissent that “Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma.”

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Sam Kerbel is an editorial assistant at Guernica.

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