Let me return to my previous comments on Jason Kottke’s distinction between old and new forms of reviewing, and to other people's thoughts. For instance, the question that my commenter Michael raises: “To what extent can reviews be docetic?” — a reference to the Christian heresy called Docetism, which claimed that Jesus was pure spirit who only appeared (Greek dokein) to have a body. Or this comment by Tim Carmody: “Some people — and I think Alan Jacobs articulates this POV excellently — think that a review should be, above all, an intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the transcendent work, removed as much as possible from the immanent details of the attendant capitalist transaction. (Let me quickly note that I never said that the “intellectual and aesthetic engagement” Tim describes is what “a review should be,” only that it’s what I try to do. And, implicitly, that it’s worth doing.)
So I take it what what Michael and Tim are saying is that my practice as a reviewer risks a neglect of material conditions (I’m mildly surprised that the word “Gnostic” didn't turn up) in its focus on the “transcendent” — the disembodied. I would disagree with these views on several scores, first (and maybe foremost) by insisting that there is a great deal of difference between the intellectual and the transcendent.
But let’s think about this is a somewhat more practical way, along the lines of an earlier post of mine. In my class this semester on Christianity and Fantasy, we just finished reading The Lord of the Rings (and are now moving on to Philip Pullman). I had ordered a particular edition of the text, as we teachers always do; but this is a book that many of the students know well, and, reasonably enough, rather than buying the ordered edition they used the ones they already owned. So in the class I saw one-volume hardbacks, one-volume paperbacks, and various versions of the good old three-volume sets: large trade paperbacks and cheap mass-market paperbacks of various vintages.
What I want to affirm is simply this: it makes perfect sense to say that we all read the same book. Or, to put it another way, the differences in the material forms of the various volumes are insignificant in comparison to the shared intellectual experience of encountering Tolkien’s story, a story which cannot be identified with any one embodiment. And when we start talking about Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy on Tuesday — another text a number of my students already own — the same will be true.
There are of course exceptions to this rule, but for most of the books we read it will hold: differences in printing, binding, and illustration from one edition of a text to another are quite minor in comparison with the cross-vehicular integrity of the text itself.