Book Reviews: Acts of Generosity or Ego?

canstockphoto17242096I recently rejoined Goodreads after a long absence and am pondering whether or not to write book reviews. I haven’t done so in the past, as a rule, for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that I have a lot of writer friends, many of whom have written books. Some of those books get an ‘A’ for effort, but not for execution. Sometimes they ask for reviews. I want to keep my integrity. And my friends.

Another reason for not writing reviews is that I feel squeamish as a writer who is trying to finish a novel. Anyone who completes and publishes work has my respect. Even work badly done is the achievement of a goal I’ve yet to attain. Perhaps when I’ve done one of my own, I’ll feel less beholden, but until then, it impacts my ability to critically write about the work of someone else. I would be ineffective as a reviewer, because I’d only say nice things.

canstockphoto8953768And lastly, we live in a culture that has elevated everyone’s opinions to something more than they are. We’re constantly being asked to review products, vacation spots, experiences, to like things, to star things…I find it all unsettling. Most people would argue that they’re being helpful and maybe it is. Maybe it forces business entities to improve, but books? They’re a done deal.

I suspect that sometimes it’s good to have our own shitty experiences, to not have everything be perfect – to be inconvenienced or ripped off or to stay in a room next to the air conditioner that rattles all night long or to read a badly-written book. That’s where we get our stories from and without those experiences, life would be dull and predictable.

We made the mistake a couple of years ago of staying in a hotel on the Pacific coast that canstockphoto40253681allowed pets. We don’t have a pet, but it was reasonably priced. We do, however, have a preference for rooms without carpet stains and an underlying smell of dog piss. Still, we laughed it off, didn’t throw a tantrum at management, didn’t wig out on Trip Advisor. It was only one night and we were right on the shore. From the balcony, using binoculars, we were delighted and surprised to see a pod of whales swimming northward. We were able to spot them well into the evening and the next morning as well. Had we read the reviews, paused to think what pet hotel meant, we would have missed something people pay quite a lot to see.

When I find books to read, I’m an archaeologist. I ramble through the stacks at my local library, digging up books that appeal, no matter whether or not they’re on a bestseller list or everyone is giving them 5-stars or even if they’re remotely current. I request books that were mentioned by other writers or that I heard referenced in an interview or that relate to a subject I’m interested in at the moment.

canstockphoto23134509One of the most disheartening experiences I try to avoid now is the referral of books to people. There are books that have lifted me up and brought me such joy, only to have a friend say “it didn’t resonate with me” – that passive, equivocating, damning phrase. I felt different about the friendship after that. Some people have religion. I have the written word. It is fair to say, this makes me a tad irrational about the subject.

Sometimes I’ll read reviews after the fact because I’m curious how something is interpreted by others. What I’ve learned is that reading is wildly subjective. That two people reading the same book will have diametrically opposed opinions and both of them are sometimes right. Unfortunately, many people write reviews that suggest their feelings are universal or that they know they are right. And like most online forums, some people use it to demonstrate what jackwagons they are.

canstockphoto1051598There is something flattering and obsequious about being asked for one’s opinion. When someone asks my opinion, my brain lights up, preparing to expound. I suspect it taps into something I don’t like about myself very much – that given the right circumstances, I’d be a horrible know-it-all who doesn’t shut up, who would run roughshod over others – someone who would never be invited back again.

Perhaps this is why humility has ended up as one of my core values. I fear what would happen should my ego escape its constraints. I’m also not fond of bloviators who suck the air out of the room and would very much like not to be one of them. Writing a review seems a step away from feeding that particular beast.

canstockphoto10580028Over the last couple of years, I’ve begun a practice of reading as a writer. I read nothing without a notebook and pen. I take notes, copy phrases, write questions. It’s a way of forcing myself to slow down, to take notice, to not just gorge myself. I’ve always been a gluttonous, speedy reader, forgetting what I’ve read ten minutes after I’ve read it. Slowing down and really absorbing the words has changed my reading experience significantly. Perhaps it has become such a luxury, that I don’t wish to exploit it for public purposes, I don’t know.

Tonight I am going to my first book club meeting ever. I’ve read the book and there’s a community book club at the local library. I’m showing up with my uncurated reading notes and with a mantra to stay open, to stay curious and to keep my opinions on a short leash.

Do you write book reviews? Do you read book reviews? What is your take on them?

42 Comments on “Book Reviews: Acts of Generosity or Ego?

  1. I write lots of book reviews and when people review mine I beg them to be honest. However, I am a coward and only post 4 or 5 star reviews and for those lower I message the author and explain why or say nothing at all. I don’t wish to damn, but I don’t want to praise either – from a purely personal point of view – a book I feel needs more work.


    • Very early on as a blogger, I was asked to do a review on Amazon. I left out any negative criticism and really felt I was impugning my integrity, so I decided not to do any more.
      Now that statistically we’re likely to know someone who has self-published, those requests hang out there. There are some good self-published books, but many others are not edited, proofread, or formatted well and some, the writers just didn’t do enough work. I’ve found it easier to have a no review policy.
      However, at some point in time, I hope that I’ll be in the position to ask others for reviews (apparently this is part and parcel of being published these days). Then I will likely find myself in trouble for not having done the same. Hence the need to still think it over.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do book reviews on my blog, but haven’t done (and don’t want to do) book reviews on request. Maybe I’ll feel differently about that once I get my book done and want reviews for myself, but right now, i don’t want to. I read about 50 books a year and end up doing about four reviews for my favorite books. It doesn’t matter if they are best sellers or not. I just want to write about the ones that resonated most with me. It keeps things positive. I’ll never write a negative review on my blog. As an aspiring writer, that just doesn’t seem right. And I won’t be dishonest either. Every six months I’ll post a list of books that I read, but won’t post the rating I gave them. I have been thinking of writing more reading response posts for some books rather than a review style post, but I haven’t decided yet. Right now this is what’s working for me.

    I like reviews because I use them to help me to decide what to read next. Writing them helps me sort out what I think makes the book work so well. And reading other people’s reviews helps me as a writer to figure out what an audience wants and likes. Some people are nasty in their reviews, and I think that’s inappropriate, but depending on the type of book (fiction/nonfiction) it can also be a way for a reader to respectfully offer an opposing point of view or add missing pieces of an argument and suggest other reading. Or to mention titles of books that are similar. I’ve used recommendations inside reviews before to continue reading about a topic.


    • You make a good point about doing what’s working for you. I fear the tit-for-tat review system really taints the whole process, so I like the idea of not accepting review requests. That makes sense.

      Since I read a lot of nonfiction essays, some of it is literary criticism of the traditional sort, when criticism meant analysis. When you read those kind of essays, reading a review on Amazon is like reading the writing in a public bathroom stall. Too little insight and a whole lot of “me”. Given a choice, I’d naturally choose the longer form, but I don’t think I’m talented enough for it at this point. Maybe something for the future.

      I like the Goodreads pages – being able to see what I’m reading, what I’ve read, what I want to read is kind of fun, but I know it’s not the purpose of the whole system, which is owned by Amazon (isn’t everything?). It’s to sell books, so we’re all incorporated into being shills for free. I know a lot of bloggers do reviews out of a genuine love of reading, which seems different from reviews on a site intended for selling and data collection.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You write: “Since I read a lot of nonfiction essays, some of it is literary criticism of the traditional sort, when criticism meant analysis. When you read those kind of essays, reading a review on Amazon is like reading the writing in a public bathroom stall.”

        Yes, I totally agree, and this is frustrating. Just like with books, there is a wide variety of quality with reviews. As I scroll through reviews when trying to find a book, it’s not difficult to tell the difference between reviewers who are just out to rant and reviewers who have something intelligent to say.

        There are a whole lot of ways to use reviews. When it comes to fiction, I have a few reviewers whose opinion I trust and look to see if they’ve reviewed a book I’m interested in. After reading it, I go back and read a wider range of reviews (especially if I didn’t like it) to see if I’m the only one who noticed certain things that were off.

        For non-fiction I use the reviews more carefully before purchasing. After reading, I’ll often go back and see if the author was missing a piece of an argument or look for similar reading or opposing viewpoints.

        All in all, I think reviews are helpful for both authors and readers and can be done respectfully. I’ve even decided to buy a book based on a negative review.


        • I’m grateful for the library system. I tend to buy books after I’ve had a chance to see or read them myself, so I don’t rely on consumer reviews, partly because they often give too much away. Like you, I’ll read reviews after I read a book out of curiosity.
          I suppose it’s important to differentiate between formats of reviews as well – there will likely be substantial difference between a breathy review (with no paragraph breaks) on Amazon than one you’d read in The New York Times.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Aren’t libraries wonderful! It’s great to read books for free. Over the last several years, though, I’ve developed a strong preference for reading electronic books. I’m highly selective about the physical books that I buy. Usually those are the nonfiction books I want to read carefully and write inside or the fiction books that I know I’ll read several times.

          I love libraries, but I also live in China, so my access to libraries filled with a decent selection of English books is limited to the libraries in the international schools where my children attend. They are great libraries, but still focused on catering to kids and teens, so although they have a lot of titles that interest me, they are missing some too. These libraries also have an e-book library (which uses an app called overdrive so you can check out a book and read it on your phone) but the selection of e-books available through them is even more limited than the physical collection.

          I know the publishing industry has changed dramatically with electronic books and that writers and readers can have a very long conversation about the good and bad of this, but for me, as a reader who is constantly moving residences and who doesn’t want to cart boxes of books with me all over the world, the lower price of digital books and my new-found preference for them means that I end up buying more books. . . many, many more than I would if I were still buying physical books. So I guess, since I need to purchase so many of my books, I’m thankful to have reviews to read beforehand.

          And I absolutely agree that there’s a difference between book reviews that are professionally done and those that are done by consumers, but there are so many books that are published and such a limited few that are reviewed by professional reviewers, I think it’s nice to open it up and have more opinions available.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I am sometimes so taken by a book that I will blog about it, but I don’t consider it a review. I’ve actually never thought about purposefully writing any, although I can’t think of why. While I sometimes read reviews — of books, films, restaurants etc., I tend not to be influenced by them. I like making up my own mind. Having said that I have a blogging buddy who lives in France who writes reviews and she is probably the reason why I read half the books I read. And I’ve NEVER read a book she reviewed I haven’t loved. I’m not interested in every book she writes about but whenever a review of hers does interest me I am never disappointed. She has introduced me to books I know I would not have otherwise found or read and for that I am truly grateful.


    • It’s nice when you find a reviewer who meets your reading needs! That is a problem sometimes when I do read a review – my reading list gets even longer. Often if I read a long form review, I put the book on a list, but don’t get to it for a long time. It helps me forget anything a reviewer writes, which I prefer – the reading clean slate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t always read them right away either because I usually already have multiple books on the go or because I’m busy on a client project.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a book blog and do reviews. After the first few bad experiences with self published authors, I stopped taking requests. Now I receive them from the publisher and do not involve myself with the author. If I really don’t like a book, then I say, This one just wasn’t for me, but try it yourself, you may feel differently. We all read things from our own perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a huge amount of subjectivity with reading and reviews. It must be difficult to balance between giving a personal critique while being equitable about the book. I suppose if a book is really awful, most people won’t review it, except to snipe about it on Amazon.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I use Goodreads (tho I liked it much better before Amazon bought it and turned it into such a marketing machine) to keep track of what I’ve read and what I thought about it. Because, goshdarnit, I will NOT remember otherwise. So I do give each book a star rating and a short review that is less about the book and more about why I did or didn’t like it. And then I often skim thru a few other reviews, some 5 stars, some 1 stars and some whatever number stars I gave it. It is interesting to me to see what other people like and don’t like. I’d hope most writers are thick-skinned enough to appreciate the honesty in a review – no one likes everything. I am much more apt to write a blog post with a longer review for books that I loved because those are the books I want to share with others, or if it’s just a book that gave me a lot of food for thought and writing about it is a good way for me to rethink it all. Maybe it’s because I worked in a bookstore for 10 years, but I don’t think the phrases, “it’s just not my thing” and “that didn’t resonate with me” are really that damning. We don’t expect everyone to like the same books. I will read other book reviews, but really I’d rather just get on to reading the next book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit to liking the stats side of things – how many books I’ve read this year, etc. Having a picture of the book in the lists is so useful as a reminder. But the star and review side of things is probably not going to be part of my milieu.

      When I recommend a book I love to someone and they say it doesn’t resonate with them, it would indeed be reasonable to say, of course, not everyone has the same taste in books. But as I hinted in the post, it’s not a rational love of mine and I’d rather have a duel about it. Hence the need to no longer recommend books.

      As a writer, I imagine that if I ever get published, I will have to completely avoid reading reviews. I will likely never be thick-skinned. It’s always interesting to me that writers need to be sensitive enough to write, but thick-skinned enough to be bashed about the head over it. I admire the writer who can pull that off.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It is interesting to me how people use Goodreads and other reviewing avenues.


  6. I HATE Goodreads. When my most recent book came out (and, sadly, that’s not all that recently), I read the reviews there for a while, then banned myself from the site. I have no problem with a reviewer not liking a book of mine for good reasons–I don’t like it, but I respect it–but so few of the reviews really were well thought through. They were opinions, reactions, not reviews. If you’re going to set yourself up as a reviewer, you need to know something about reading and about writing.

    I know, I know, Goodreads isn’t supposed to be for professional reviewers, but what are we gaining from everyone throwing opinions around without pushing each other to know more?

    What’s more, I hate the idea of rating books by giving them X number of stars. What is this, third grade?

    Are you getting the impression that this topic makes me crabby?

    I have written a very few reviews on Goodreads, almost all of them because I was asked to. I’m not happy with any of them. I really should say no next time.


    • Oh Ellen, you made me laugh. Thanks, too, for jumping in with some opposition. After reading your comment, I went back to Goodreads and unstarred the books I’ve read thus far. I agree with you on your point about the stars.
      To me, Goodreads just looks like Amazon reviews, which are an uneven bunch of opinions. There is something to be said for professional reviewers. I love literary criticism essays, because when they are well done, the writer is able to compare and contrast to other literary works, address cultural issues, talk about history related to a work, etc. They’re less “what do I think about this?” and more about context. I can trust the writer who is able to lay out their reasons and rationalizations.
      I can’t imagine what it is like to be a published writer in this kind of environment. I think it must be tremendously difficult and sometimes painful, so huzzah to you for running that gauntlet. Hopefully, I’ll woman up and do it myself someday. Thanks, too, for sharing your perspective, crabby or otherwise.


  7. I rarely read reviews, except those by people I follow on WordPress, because I already like and respect the person writing the review.

    I can’t imagine looking for a book to read. I have shelves of books never read. My shelves are overflowing, so I almost never buy books anymore, unless it’s non-fiction and I want to underline and comment, or use it for research. Books have a way of jumping out of library shelves into my hands.


    • I’m rather compulsive about books. I have tons unread and due to this compulsion, generally limit myself to going to the library these days. I only buy books that I’ve read and wish to refer to later or that are references in themselves. This particular gene runs in the family, with some members’ primary possessions being a frighteningly large collection of books. I tend to be a mood reader, flitting between genres and subjects. I figure it’s a relatively harmless way to be happy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m an armchair traveler, for sure. Books have always been my escape and comfort. I tend to go through phases. Lately it’s history, biography, and current events/economics. I just checked out 5 (five!) books from the library on things like the 2008 financial collapse, the commodities market, and the land grabbing in third world countries by foreign investors. “Savages” was the first one I read, and posted a synopsis on WP.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been using GoodReads for about six years now and I love it. It helps me keep track of what I’ve read and what’s caught my eye. However, I rarely read or write reviews. I very rarely accept recommendations from people (generally because they turn out awfully) so I don’t seek them out on my own either. And if I write a review, it’s always brief. The star system I use pretty dedicatedly, but not for others. Instead, I use it to remind me of how much I enjoyed the reading experience. If I devoured the book, it gets a five. If I limped through it, it gets a one.

    That said, I’ve just started doing mini “wrap ups” on my blog. I’ve found that, like you, I sometimes read so quickly that I forget the details of what I’ve read. And it’s gotten worse since I’ve doubled the number of books I read annually. So by writing the wrap ups, I can give my future self a little reminder of what I was feeling when I read the book and if it’s worth potentially re-reading in the future.


    • I like the idea of blogging being a “scrapbook” of reading history. Perhaps that is another reason that I keep filling notebooks with notes from my reading.

      I haven’t made up my mind about Goodreads. For now, I’ll just use it to keep lists – especially the “To Read” list which grows exponentially. I assume it will work better than my usual system of writing some book I want to read on a scrap of paper that is promptly lost.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!


  9. I rely on people whose reading taste I respect (you) for a map through the library stacks. I don’t mind starting a clunker, but I’d much rather pick up something that has a chance of pushing through my reading disability.

    As for reviews, I feel much the same about movie reviews—especially the critical ones. Jack wagons. All of them. With something to prove and no ability to look for beauty, meaning or delight that might be subtle.


    • It makes sense that if you have any obstacles to reading (anything from time to a particular disability), that you’d want to raise your odds of finding a book you’ll like. I suppose I’m rather indiscriminate in this respect. But I also tend to put down clunkers rather quickly if I find after 30 pages or so that the writing is awful or the narrator’s voice doesn’t hook me.
      As I’ve mentioned in previous comments, there is something inherently different between an essay of literary criticism, than that of a standard book review. Maybe the key is time. Most literary essays aren’t trying to hop up a bestseller or even focus on one work.
      When I have read a book or movie review in advance, I won’t read or see the thing being reviewed. Likely ever. Or at least until I’ve completely forgotten about the review. It’s as if I’ve gotten the Cliff’s notes in advance, leaving nothing to discovery or surprise. What’s the point? Maybe I like that sense that I’m going where no one has been before – a book safari, hence my inclination towards rambling about the library.

      I seem to be rather chatty this morning, Sandy. And without coffee. Thanks for popping in – I imagine you have a lot on your plate at the moment getting ready for your move.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just my out of control mixed state. When the time comes to *actually* move, I’ll get Shane and his Merry Movers to come do everything. All I have to do is clean (no small feat) and get my geriatric cats to Oklahoma without killing them. That’s all.


        • My geriatric cats are driving me nuts. Can you take them, too? Something is happening in their old age – they’ve become incredibly vocal. All day long. It’s making writing a real bear. Might have to escape to the library today.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Reviews can be harsh, for sure! Especially when it’s your own work getting slammed.
    As a recent MFA grad, I can attest to this!

    I think your idea of reading as a writer is terrific! Take those notes, think reflectively about them, and ultimately you can use them in your own writing to make you a better writer. Works for me!


    • I mentioned to someone earlier how writers are expected to be sensitive enough to write engaging prose, but not so much that we can’t be beat about the head for it. It seems a bit much to expect from any one human.

      Taking notes has been a very useful practice. It’s a little tougher reading fiction that way, because if what you’re reading is good, you don’t want to break your concentration to jot a note. I try to remember to go back at the end of the chapter to copy phrases, or take notes.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Submitting writing to magazines, editors and agents, the line “doesn’t resonate with me,” “not a good fit,” and similar phrases is a challenge to hear time after time. In general, everybody’s a critic and today’s media gives everyone a microphone and a printing press.


  12. I used to trust referral books a lot. It never failed me. But now, everybody who writes seems to know different things. Sometimes when I read something that interest me, I end up feeling a bit behind on something… at least, it’s still feels good to relate with other readers and writers.


  13. Funny to read this post after your book club post. Such hope!
    Like Nancy above, I primarily write reviews in Goodread for my own purposes. It helps me articulate how I felt about a book, and then later on remind myself what I did or didn’t like. I’ll glance at the ratings for a book prior to reading but rarely delve into the comments until after the fact. I don’t want the jackwads tainting my experience. I made an exception in the book I’m reading now, The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer. Actually, it’s a re-read. It charmed me the first time I read it, so I felt I could read the reviews in advance this time. A lot of people really disliked it (fine, I dislike a lot of books people really like), but now I can’t get their nagging whines and quibbles out of my head. Stupid haters!
    In short, Goodreads is a reminder of why we should continue to pay for legit book critics.


    • There was a brief period of time when I read reader reviews and I found the exact same problem. Things that I might not have noticed in my own reading experience, became these niggling thoughts in my head. I much prefer to go in cold and form my own opinions, have my own experience. I prefer not to have other people nattering away at me while I’m reading, inside or outside my head.

      There is something to be said for professional reviewers. The ones who really get it right can compare and contrast to other works, which for me, always means more books to add to my reading list. They take a wider view and not this picayune, pedantic approach that one often sees in amateur reviews.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I like your point about not reviewing to gain experiences (positive or otherwise). Finding out for yourself is very important. Perhaps reviews that stayed along the lines of “I read this and it is about… ” would be more helpful? I know when I look for books sometimes the blurb on the jacket just isn’t enough.


  15. I like the Goodreads scores, as i use them to give me an idea of how the book is. Try to get the books with 3.5 or 3.7, and higher. With a large sampling of ratings, you get a decent idea of how the book is.
    As far as reviews, sometimes the ones i read from writers or professors critiquing another’s work seem to end up being a case of the reviewer trying to show how superior they are. Which turns me off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m still playing around with Goodreads, but it is likely I will simply use it to track my reading for referencing later. I find the scoring system to not be very useful, because so often the “scores” don’t jive with my assessment and tend to be reductive. But I think that’s why so many people use Goodreads – they can use it in whatever way works for them.
      There is a tendency for the “know-it-all” factor to come into play on some reviews. I also get irritated when the reviews are pedantic and far too long.


  16. Pingback: Book Reviews: Acts of Generosity or Ego? — The Green Study – The Report Catalogue

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