Book Reviews: Acts of Generosity or Ego?
I 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.
And 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 allowed 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.
One 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.
There 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.
Over 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?