November 22, 2005

Book review review review

Q Pheevr has begun to review book reviews, calling the results "book review reviews". According to Q, "My hope is that these reviews will help you decide whether to take the time to read the reviews they review, or at least that they will give me an opportunity to make snarky remarks." Q's review of Gale Zoë Garnett's review of Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand accomplishes something more, raising interesting questions about the nature of imperatives, the meaning of "it", and the evolution of formulaic politeness.

Q's post is by no means the blogosphere's first book review review, nor even the first one to name itself as such. Beatrix at is subtitled "A Book Review Review", and Portifex has a weekly "New York Times Book Review review" in his Daily Blague, and so on. But I had hoped that this post might be the web's first explicit "book review review review", and here the situation is less clear.

If I ask technorati about "book review review review", it tells me that

There are no posts that contain that text yet. Please try again later or add it to your watchlist to track future conversation.

No, thanks all the same. If I search Google for "book review review review", the first few strings that I find either cross punctuation marks

"Just review the Video or DVD, read your book, review, review, review and you will be on your way to learning how to become a professional mixologist."

or reflect a more profound limitation in Google's text indexing algorithm, which allows it find strings that cross not only punctuation but major formatting divisions like these:


Review of the first edition "Blah blah." The New York Times Book Review


Review of the first edition "… Blah blah." The Economist

I don't care enough to look at more than a page or two of those, so I'll just say that this post may or may not be the first use on the web of the phrase "book review review review", in the sense of a review of a review of a review of a book.

Returning briefly to Q's review review, in reference to Lynne Truss' jeremiad against the formulaic politeness of waitstaff:

"Enjoy!" cannot reasonably be interpreted as a command, because enjoyment is not something one can decide to do, but rather an involuntary mental state. The imperative is not generally compatible with such states, as illustrated in (1) and (2):
1. *Suffer from clinical depression!
2. *Desire a glass of beer!
The only rational interpretation of "Enjoy!" is something like "I hope that you will enjoy [the good or service I have just provided you with]."

Fair enough so far. But there are several other conventional imperative-form formulas of benevolence that seem to command states or processes not under voluntary (or for that matter involuntary) control, e.g.

Be well!
Have fun!
Have a safe trip!

It's plausible that these really mean things like "I hope you will be well/have fun" etc., but the relationship is not systematic. It's reasonable to say something like "I hope you will be treated fairly (by the court)" to someone who is about to go on trial, but the pseudo-imperative form "be treated fairly!" doesn't work at all. This is not just a matter of avoiding imperative passives, since "be the beneficiary of a large inheritance" is no better.

I'm sure that there is an extensive literature on this, which I'll link to as soon as someone tells me about it.

[Update: Richard Hershberger writes:

You forgot to check usenet (setting aside for the moment whether or not that counts as "on the web"). Checking Google Groups comes up with a clear hit from 1998, where a thread in comp.lang.python with the subject line "Book review review" includes a reply with the subject line "Book review review review". See The content of the message is not in fact a review of the review of the book review, but that clearly is the sense intended in the subject line.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 22, 2005 08:22 AM