Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reviewing Reflections 1 May 2013

Reviewing a book is a weird thing to do, when you think about it. Who cares what I, or anyone else, thinks about a writer's blood, sweat, and tears, her/is endless hours of toil and enormous investment of emotional energy? Shouldn't it speak for itself?

Yes. It should, and it does. Reviewing a book isn't, or shouldn't need to be, interpreting the author's work, it's appreciating the author's entire process of creation. And by appreciate, I mean "recognize the full worth of" not necessarily "be grateful for."

I recognize the full worth of books that I don't like by writing reviews of them. Even a scathing, nasty personal attack is an appreciation of the full worth of a book. All the time, all the effort that Author poured into the book has elicited from me a response that was strong enough to impel me to write it down and tell people about it. That is a giant achievement.

I read a lot. I don't review the huge majority of what I read. Some of the books are abandoned before the Pearl Rule point (Nancy Pearl's statement of the rule of 50: Before you're 50 years old, read 50 pages of a book to make a fair judgment; after age 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages to be fair to the book). It seems unnecessary and unhelpful for me to review those. Most often I abandon books because they're ~meh~.

And that is a horrible thing to say about anyone's blood, sweat, and tears. Far, far better to hate something than to uncare about it, after all that work.

But back to my main idea: Why should you care what I think about a book? Well, maybe we're friends, and you know enough about me to think I might know a little about this reading fad. Maybe you're looking to pick holes in my ideas about a pet book of yours that we disagree about. Maybe you're not too sure what a particular book will offer you is worth the investment of your eyeblinks, and seek a range of opinions about it.

But more often than not, people read reviews because reading, that most solitary of pursuits, is actually very social. You're reading a book that puts you in a one-on-one contact, and a very intimate one, with an author. You're more aware of that author's thoughts about the story than you are about your mate/marital partner/child/parent's ideas about anything at all. A book is a deep, prolonged conversation between yourself and a stranger. It's legitimized cheating for those in relationships.

And then there's the wider community of readers. Other people (ideally a lot of them) are reading this book too! They're having their own illicit trysts with the author's brain! Isn't it at least a little bit intriguing to wonder what it is that they're getting from this sharing? If you're hating the experience of reading a book, and everyone else adores it, don't you at least wonder if there's another kindred soul out there feeling no love for the beloved?

And that's where reviews and reviewers come in. A lot of people don't like reviews that tell them the story of the book, some for fear of spoilers and some for sheer irritation at having to read inept synopses. (I'm the latter...spoilers make me no nevermind.) Some people want the story told them so they have a context for the response that is a review. It's that response, the personal reaction of a specific reader, that is so interesting to me, and to many who read reviews.

I write the sort of reviews I like to read: Tell me *why* you personally responded to this book, what it called up for you, what missing pieces it gave you in the puzzle of life; or tell me why it failed you, what the author set you up to expect and didn't give you.

Even when, as is so often the case, I disagree with a person's take on a book, it's very interesting to me to know what it is. I get value from hearing opinions I don't share. I've re-evaluated books I thought I didn't like because I've read ideas about them that made me question my response. I've changed my mind about a fair few, too.

That's why I care about book reviews. I can't possibly read everything I already own before I die. With the time I have, I want to be part of a community conversation about the books of our lives, listening to the responses and reactions to these uniquely intimate experiences that define reading.

That's what I hope you're getting out of reading book reviews, too. A perspective not your own on an experience uniquely your own. How cool is that, to have available to you at any time and from any imaginable point of view?


  1. I agree with everything you have said, with an additional point: a thoughtful review has led me to discover a new-to-me author more times than I can count. I'm always grateful for that.

    1. It's why I keep reading reviews. The hope of making a discovery and just maybe changing my world.

  2. Well said! There can be a lot of value in a negative review. Well written criticisms have caused me to actually pick up a book I might have otherwise passed by.

    1. Thank you, Heidi. I agree about the value of a critical review. When all I see are 5-star raves, I can't help but feel repelled. If everyone likes something, how good can it really be?

  3. I love your comment about "legitimized cheating"--I swear that is what my husband feels when he sees me reading, he gets envious of my relationship with it. I don't write good reviews myself, just my general reactions to a book, but I love reading good reviews, and you are one of the best.

    1. Thank you, Roni. that's so kind of you to say!


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