On Reviewing Books

Posted by in book reviews

Truly, there is nothing quite like getting on one’s high horse and then discovering how much shorter the horse is in comparison to the one you aspire to ride.

I’ve been reflecting on the quality of my reviews, especially after having written several posts on what I think makes a good, fair treatment of a book, and then after labouring over my latest review, which I consider far from satisfactory. Frankly, I am disappointed in my own reviews. And the more disappointed I become, the harder they are to write, often taking me days to compose, often edited within an inch of their lives so that they lack any life at all. They remain, unfortunately, despite my efforts, so far from what I would like them to be.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. But as I read book reviews in papers like the New York Times, I see what a real assessment should be and, in contrast, what mine are. Rather than reach back to the educational roots I have as an English literature scholar, those roots I keep referring to (perhaps in the hope of resurrecting that ability I once possessed to prolifically produce intelligent material), I’ve been reviewing more like a copy editor, nitpicking format and technical elements rather than really exploring the elements of the story. Sure, I come up with some questions, sure I give you reasons why something worked or didn’t for me. In the end, you’ll still come away with a feeling, if you haven’t read the book, that you would like or not like to read it. And if you have read the book, with any luck you’ll have been urged to think on something you hadn’t considered.

But I’d like my reviews to be less focused on technical elements and more thematic, to explore metaphor and story. As a reader, that’s what I value, as a book blogger, what I thus aspire to. Perhaps more importantly, I think that’s how a good book deserves to be treated, with careful thought and exploration.

Some books simply don’t call for this sort of analysis, I suppose, though even the Hunger Games YA trilogy carried themes of war and self-sacrifice, survival and risk, humanity and ethics and morals, power and oppression, politics and fear, voyeurism and schadenfreude, love and loyalty.

In Jane Urquart’s newest book Sanctuary Line, a character asks, “How do we enter a book?” And the answer is: emotionally, intellectually, philosophically, and esthetically. This is (we hope) the reader’s experience, the ability to connect or be satisfied on all four of these levels. It’s not why we read, it’s how. Certainly, the physical, sensory experience counts, also the pace, style, setting, and syntax. But a book is a contribution, an offering. In order to explore just what that contribution is—that is, in order to write a review—besides stating what we like and don’t like, what works and doesn’t, we have to also examine what the book is telling us.

I’m not sure if we can apply this to all books we read (I’m trying to think of what I Am Number Four is telling us, if anything, for example), but in general, the act of reading is not only escape or entertainment but also a means of edification, of exploring themes of what it means to be human on this earth. In my opinion, (my) reviews should reflect that.