20 November 2007

Book Review Policy

I've been confronted with a lot of evidence that reading is on the wane, as a pleasure activity, as an educational activity, as an fixed element of modern enlightened life. This is a recurring nightmare over at Grad Student Madness, where the posts are generally of higher tone and better documented than my own. (I believe that may come as a direct result of reading, by the way. Rufus reads WAY more than I do, and I read somewhere in the too-much range.) After reading several articles about how The Young People Just Don't Like To Read (most recently, this one), and having experienced a shocking amount of groaning when adults enrolled in college were told read as many as one written page...

I started to wonder about book reviews. It is unwise for me to read a book, and then just tell people what's in it? Sure, it could pique someone's interest, but more likely (given the statistics) they'll just breathe a sigh of relief, realizing that it's one less tedious pile of irritating words they might avoid wading through. (Both the book, and the review.) Here's why:

When I worked at the bookstore, it was a regular occurrence to encounter folks who came rushing in, breathless, moments before the store closed, demanding the Cliff's Notes or... ah. That other thing, that isn't Cliff's Notes. Well, it doesn't matter now, because there are probably a dozen or so version of that idea, of clarifying and examining a text. The idea, I think, was to help folks who were having trouble getting on top of what they'd read. The Illiad is deeply mired in reference, fer cryin' out loud. To Kill A Mockingbird is complex shit, yo. The Sun Also Rises is... well. Nevermind what adjective I'd put on that one. Point is, sometimes when you read a thing, maybe you didn't quit apprehend the full significance. Enter the Cliff's Notes, or the Complete Idiot's Guide, or whatever. Maybe you're going to have to expound on Catcher In The Rye for your AP exam, and you want to rock it, and maybe your English class sucks.

But that's not how these guides are used. Instead, they're used to help the folks who haven't read the original text fake it satisfactorily in class, in the paper, in the exam. And now, the folks who discover that the library or bookstore doesn't have the study guide, who learned that some other jerk checked out the video store's only copy of the classic movie adapted from the book, are frantically rummaging the internet for synopsis and analysis. They're thoroughly boned, they're risking their A- average by getting called out on their complete and total failure to know anything at all about the title at hand.

Now we come around to the reason that I'm hesitant to write book reviews. I don't want any part of that. I admit, it's unlikely that I'm reading something that someone was supposed to have read but did not. I admit, it's unlikely that, in the random case that I have read and reviewed something that someone was supposed to have read, and did not. Hell, it's exceptionally unlikely that I have read and reviewed something that someone didn't read, and they somehow end up in my almost-totally-unread blog and read my review of it, and think they've learned something about the thing they didn't read. That's a lottery win long shot, right there. But I feel pretty certain that more non-readers who are searching the internet the night before their paper is due will read my book reviews, than other readers.

As a confirmed bibliophile, it's hard for me NOT to talk about things I'm reading. But it's often seemed to me that the people I'd like to talk with (other adults who have read the thing) are either non-existent or unavailable to me, or I'm too neurotic to connect with them. The other bibliophiles I do know well enough to talk intelligently with... don't read the same books I do, for the most part. Unless I force a book on one of them, or they on me.

Am I contributing to the problem, by not sharing my enthusiasm? Am I just being a bitter old wingnut, by believing that it's better to enjoy it by myself, than to have my experience corrupted and perverted? (In fact, it's unlikely that I would ever know if my book reviews were used in this way. The folks who skim the internet for clues in life are not going to be the ones giving authorial credit where it's due...)

I did join a few reading-group websites (like Shelfari, which displays my current reads at the bottom of this page, as well as GoodReads, and LibraryThing), to see about finding people to talk to about my books. I've been consistently disappointed with the discussions going on. The book I finished most recently has one, two-word review, which somehow manages to incorporate consonance, a pun, and two clich├ęs. Argh! Another one has a few more words, but those words are "A nice sequel to the previous book." That's the entirety of the review. It's depressing, to be blunt. That's the best the bookworms can come up with?

So. Here's my book review policy. If I'm reading something, and someone asks me about it--anyone at all, in real life, one of my imaginary internet friends, the bookstore clerk, anyone--I'll review it. Otherwise, I'm probably not going to bother, unless it strikes a profound chord in me, and I just can't not write about it. Sometimes the spirit really is moved.

No comments: