That Fine Line

How does one write a review of a book such as The Way of Four Spellbook: Working Magic with the Elements? If one is an unnamed Publishers Weekly reviewer, thusly:

… use[s] the four elements—air, fire, water, earth—as the primary foundations for beginning spell casters to learn and practice their art. A high priestess in the Gardnerian Wiccan tradition, Lipp likens this elementary spell book to a “cookbook,” and indeed, readers will find spells structured like recipes, with lists of “needed tools” replacing ingredients sections and clear sets of instructions for whipping up each spell… . While the book includes many essentials commonly found across the vast array of available spell books, it also offers less typical guidance, such as a helpful warning against practicing spells while pregnant. As well, readers are sure to enjoy some of the more unusually pleasurable spells, including a wonderful-sounding bath spell to alleviate writer’s block; cookie spells; sex spells; and many others.

The precise wording leaves me in awe. “to learn and practice their art” … “elementary” … “essentials” … . “helpful warning” … “sure to enjoy” … “wonderful-sounding.” The review gives every appearance of taking the book at face value, evaluating its practical utility. And yet, completely absent from the review is any investigation of whether the spells actually work. An inch to the left, and the review denigrates the entire subject of magic (however spelled) and is therefore worthless to its audience—those readers considering buying The Way of Four Spellbook without irony. But an inch to the right, and the review is demonstrably, provably false.

Neither alternative is good for the credibility of Publishers Weekly. Thus, the subtle, skillful equivocation, in which the review gives every apearance of informed objectivity while nonetheless evaluating only the aesthetic aspects of the book. To appreciate fully the artfulness of the reveiwer who can walk this line, imagine writing a review of a book on automobile repair in this style.

“As well, readers are sure to enjoy some of the more unusually pleasurable repairs, including a wonderful-sounding technique for using regular inspections to avoid brake failure … “