When, under Michael Steinberg's editorship, the first issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction appeared in Spring 1991, I served both as Interviews Editor—in that issue my interview was with essayist Scott Russell Sanders—and as one of its reviewers. I sometimes wrote full-length reviews of a single book and sometimes wrote short ones for the Reader-to-Reader: Capsule Reviews section. My first capsule subjects were The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Field of Vision by Lisa Knopp, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez, Thistle Journal and Other Essays by Daniel Minock, and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi by Reg Saner. The Spring 2008 issue published my last Fourth Genre review, of Deborah Tall's A Family of Strangers. By then I was chiefly Interviews and Roundtable Editor. My final interview was with Carl Klaus in the Spring 2012 issue, before an editorial change ended my involvement. Since 2014, I've occasionally written reviews online for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. The most recent one was about a new essay collection by Scott Russell Sanders.
I resist rummaging through cardboard boxes in our garage containing most of what I've ever published, but I recall writing reviews of stage productions or movies for my college newspaper as an undergraduate. As a high school teacher, I wrote 100-word reviews of television programs for the weekend edition of the Buffalo Evening News, an enterprise that taught me to write rough drafts of whatever length and tighten them up gradually in rewrite after rewrite. I'm confident one of those reviews was of a first season episode of Star Trek. I continued reviewing as a grad student and as a college professor. A good many of my current blog entries almost amount to reviews, usually in the context of what affected me in what I read or heard or saw.
Of course, I've also read or heard or viewed a great many reviews by other writers over the years. For an early academic book of mine, Working at Writing: Columnists and Critics Composing (when my scholarly and instructional interests were in rhetoric and composition), I interviewed drama critic Walter Kerr and film critics David Denby and Neil Gabler (as well as essayists Jim Fitzgerald and Kathleen Stocking and political columnists Richard Reeves and Tom Wicker) about their composing processes. I also watched Siskel and Ebert in their various television series. My newspaper reading usually skipped news, sports, and business sections but always opened to entertainment or book sections. My wife and I have subscribed for decades to weekly editions of The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, from which at breakfast each day I read reviews of books, films, plays, musical performances, and television programs.
Sometimes I find myself reading conflicting reviews of the same work, perhaps a positive one in The New Yorker, a negative one in the Times. Those occasions reinforce my awareness that, no matter how intelligent or well-educated or accomplished in their professions—(not all critics are literary people)—all reviewers read like individuals and their reviews attend to their priorities, if not flat out to their tastes or biases. I sometimes feel that the Times editors urge each reviewer to find something to complain about or disapprove of even in the most approving review but allow them to relent somewhat to end on a positive note.
I've mostly had the option of choosing what books (or recordings or films or plays) I want to review. That means I never have to let readers in on any works I was disappointed in or bored by or infuriated with. Since I mostly read books all the way through, I'm selective about what I intend to read and usually choose something by a writer I've liked in the past or on a subject I've wanted to know more about or in a literary form that promises clear communication. I seldom have to give up on what I'm reading and usually find myself personally invested in what I've chosen.
The writing that I do about another writer's work bridges the gap between what that writer is sharing and what I react to in what I read. What I write may start out as random commentary, a note to help me remember what the work was about, or a journal entry to explore my reactions further. If that doesn't seem sufficient, I'm likely to go back at what I've written, to clarify it further, to express it more accurately. Sometimes it ends up being much like a review, maybe something I could share as a blog post. It may even prompt someone else to read that other writer's work. I'd rather encourage more reading than discourage it.
Note: Twenty-three volumes of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction are available online at JSTOR <https://www.jstor.org/journal/fourthgenre> and Project Muse <https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/217>.
Reviews for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative are available online at https://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/keyword/book-review,
Root, Robert. Review of A Family of Strangers by Deborah Tall. Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 10:1 (Spring 2008): 175-178.
Root, Robert L., Jr. Reviews of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Field of Vision by Lisa Knopp, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez, Thistle Journal and Other Essays by Daniel Minock, and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi by Reg Saner. Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 1:1 (Spring 1999): 171-173.