Why I Hate Book Reviews and Why I Write Them Anyway (No. 15)

The quick answer to the second question, of course, is that I do it because I get paid (which, I might add, Samuel Johnson, the patron saint of this endeavor, said was the only reason to write anything), but since I do not, according to most people, get paid enough to make it worth my effort, there are in fact a number of other reasons. But first things first: Why I Hate Book Reviews.

For a few months during my junior year of college, when we had some extra cash and were feeling full of first-apartment pride, my housemates and I subscribed to the New York Times. It was so great. I would wake up in the morning, make breakfast in my pajamas, and sit in an easy chair drinking coffee and reading the Times. Sundays were especially good, of course, because that is when we got the Book Review. The problem with all of this, though, was that I found I could occupy entire days just reading the Times. I could just absorb news and opinion and features and never go to class and never read anything less than a day old that didn’t leave ink on my fingers. Then we all started to run out of money, so we cancelled our subscription, and I started paying attention to my classes, and remembered that there were decades, and even centuries and millenia other than our own.

Of course, I lost some of my scintillating conversation. I was no longer up on The View of everything, nor could I open comments with, “That reminds me of the article in last Tuesday’s Times. . . .” What I did notice, though, was that I started reading books again. I didn’t talk about books as much (because what can you really say about the Inferno the first time you read it, other than “Wow”?), but I read them much more. When we got the Times Book Review, I would read it and marvel at all the books out there that I ought to read. And even if the book itself didn’t sound like something I’d want to read, I’d devour the review if it was written by some author I admire. But I never read any of those books. I’d watch as they moved from front-page headliners to “And Keep In Mind. . .”, and then they would vanish completely. For a few weeks I had some names in mind, and perhaps a witty comment or two by John Updike or Margaret Atwood, and then those would vanish, too.

I do not remember a single book review I have ever read, but I recall almost all the books I have read clearly. When I read book reviews, I feel that I am really with it, that I know who’s who, what’s up and coming, what the real writers think, but therein lies the problem: when I read reviews, I cease to think for myself. If reading books opens up whole new worlds, stretches the mind and the imagination and exercises the process of thought, reading most book reviews, for me, at least, closes the world. This is what the book is about, says the reviewer, and this is what it made me think about and what I think of it, and since the reviewer is often someone whom I respect and admire, I am easily sucked in. I will adopt her views and then for weeks walk around saying, “Well, so-and-so said that. . . .” Perhaps some of you are tougher-minded than I, and you do not buy what the reviewer tells you. If so, I admire and envy you. For most of us, though, I imagine that it is easier simply to agree.

So why do I write book reviews then, if not for the money (although I admit I find it an incentive, along with the free book and the opportunity to talk to writers, usually on someone else’s phone bill)?

The answer is obvious to me. I write book reviews because I think that maybe I can make them better. Maybe I can write reviews which would make me run out and buy that book right now, or find how how soon the library will have it in and get there first thing that morning. I don’t know that I actually do succeed in writing book reviews any different from those of the rest of the world–I don’t think so. But I like to try. I like to think that I can get people to read books, for I believe that there is no better or richer experience in the world (and if I you don’t think that, I think it’s because you haven’t met the right book yet, but that’s another story for another day).

In fifth grade, we did a novel unit on Survival. We all got to pick from a list of novels, and we wrote reports on them, and then we all had to do a little speech, a review of the book which was videotaped so that future generations could watch the tape and choose what books they wanted accordingly. My review was of a book called Incident at Hawk’s Hill, about a boy who falls down a hole and is raised by badgers, and how he eventually comes to live in the world again. I believe it is based on a true story. Anyway, for my review I spoke briefly of the premise of the book, and then I read aloud two excerpts. Later, the teacher asked everyone which books they’d heard about that they’d like to read. Nearly everyone in the class said they’d really like to read Incident at Hawk’s Hill.

That was probably the biggest ego boost I’ve ever had, but the truth of the matter is, I didn’t sell the book–the book itself did that.

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