I used to be a book reviewer

I used to be a book reviewer, sort of. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that for several years in a row, I wrote something about every, or almost every, book I read. My first blog, Bookphilia, was born out of my inability to remember how I’d ever ended up doing a PhD in English, what the bloody big deal about books was anyway.

I got my answer and became a devoted reader again; my posts quickly evolved from a basic sort of “I am now halfway through this novel; it is pretty good/excellent/okay/stupid/boring” to something more clearly resembling a review, by which I guess I mean something intended to get at the most important or interesting parts of each book I finished.

It couldn’t last though, and here’s why: with few exceptions, I won’t actually read reviews of books I haven’t read; I don’t want anyone else’s thoughts to interfere with my own before they’re formed (also why I never read introductions until I’m done the book. Or back cover copy. Shit, it’s not even safe to read foot- or endnotes; a few months ago, as I settled into Zola’s Germinal, one seemingly innocuous note about a Paris street name gave me the entire bloody plot of L’Assommoir! This is an intolerable abuse of readerly trust; I’m still reeling).

The exception? There are two, actually. I read reviews of books I’m pretty sure I will never actually pick up myself; in such cases, there’s nothing to lose. Yes, that makes me a literary coward of the first order. I can enjoy a well-turned phrase (either original or quoted) without worrying about accidentally finding out something I’d like to discover on my own terms: how a book concludes, its twists and sharp corners, what the author’s favourite colour was, their shoe size. I want to be surprised without being surprised, if that makes sense; I want to be surprised only when I’ve decided I am now prepared to be surprised. Christ, I sound insane.

Brothers KaramazovThe other circumstance under which I read a review is when I’ve already read the book in question; the only risk in this situation is that I’ll become ruffled or grumbly because I don’t agree with the reviewer’s take on things. But you know, while I sometimes feel mildly aggressive about such differences in opinion, I almost never show it and, more importantly, I forget it almost immediately. You see, I happen to be in love with a man who thought The Brothers Karamazov was just “pretty good.” I still married him, in spite of this unconscionable lack of appreciation for Dostoevsky’s semi-hysterical literary genius. Being bothered by someone’s taste in books is about a tenth of a centimetre more sophisticated than being offended we don’t both think blue is the prettiest colour, like ever.

This is all very insightful, I’m sure, but it doesn’t leave me with much when it comes to writing about books. I wrote something, once, that sort of looks like what I wish I could do with books more frequently: my review of Doctor Zhivago. It was exuberant and silly and revealed almost nothing about the novel; but while delightful (to write), this sort of thing isn’t sustainable or very repeatable. Don’t get me wrong, I was Inspired, and I mean that in the most humiliatingly earnest way—but writing that “review” was just pure shits and giggles, and such things can probably only happen with extremely passionate and loud and slightly unhinged novels such as Pasternak’s. (Which, incidentally, if you have any recommendations…)

There just aren’t very many such novels, and for the others, I don’t want to write academic articles (I am delightfully out of practice at this; I don’t think I could use academic jargon like “elide” or “always/already” now if life and limb depended on it), and I don’t want to dismantle books through negative reviews. Not that I don’t think negative reviews are important, I do—without them, the positive ones are rendered pretty much meaningless—but I no longer find them enjoyable to write. My brief and damning discussion of The Bone Clocks served only to increase my heartache. (Indeed, my heart is still aching! Mitchell, Mitchell—why? WHY?)

A Time for EverythingA recent piece over at Open Letters Monthly does what I wish all book reviews could do: it gave me the kind of sentence that encapsulates a book so intriguingly that I MUST go find it—but without actually telling me very much at all. Here it is, a sentence from a piece about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s much-hyped My Struggle (parts 1-17): “A Time for Everything is about the history of angels on earth from Genesis to the present day.” This sentence isn’t even about the books the review focuses on; but I stopped shortly after this sentence in my reading to consider that I was about to overrule my own aversion to the literary hysteria about this guy and try to read this, his second novel and then, maybe, consider My Struggle if the crazy book about angels is as good as it really bloody well should be.

***

I began this post months ago and forgot about it. I think I have read approximately 0.75 book reviews (about books I haven’t yet read) since then, all of which gave me enough info about authors I thought I might like to read (Nancy Mitford and Nicola Griffith) to guarantee I wouldn’t closely read those reviews in their entirety.

Also, as it turns out, there maybe isn’t a time for everything. I searched and searched for that Knausgaard novel and finally found it. Speaking of sounding insane: I didn’t buy it and likely never will because I don’t like the physical object. It is a square book, fat and heavy like a bible or a textbook; the font is small, which hurts my eyes and makes me feel like reading is an affliction.

Well, what the eff. It’s even more true that life is short and not to be wasted on books that aren’t super-awesome than it’s true that I’ve got complicated feng shui requirements when it comes to reading. I’m going to be 40 very, very soon…that means I might have no more than 40 more years of reading left to me…! There definitely is not time for everything, book-wise.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. AJK says:

    I enjoyed this post quite a lot. I rarely read reviews anymore to find books, as Amazon does a fine job of showing me what’s new in my areas of interest, and I let the New York Times and NPR newsletters keep me posted on new releases. I skipped the Knausgaard after trying to wade through the banality that was his two-part article in the New York Times magazine. He also had a New Yorker article about the Breivik massacre in Norway which didn’t seem to have anything really new to say about that tragedy.

    I have never been interested in blogging about books myself, but have kept a private reading journal for many years now, mostly to work out and try to understand and articulate what I think about a book beyond the like it/hate it dichotomy. It’s been just the right approach for me because it pushes me to really think about what I’ve reading and has shown things to me that I didn’t realize just from the reading. I remember reading several short and deceptively simple novels of Muriel Spark and Flannery O’Connor, and only really appreciating the depth and complexity and richness of the underlying moral philosophy as I wrote about them afterwards. I struggle to find the time to do the writing as I always find it easier to pick up another book, but somehow the rewards keep me going.

    1. Colleen says:

      That’s cool!

      I have enjoyed book blogging in the past but I’ve always struggled with how (I want) to do it; so much of my time has been spent unlearning all the ways of talking about books I learned in grad school. Not the ways of thinking though–I try to approach things with the same curiosity to dig deep but I haven’t found the language, and honestly the energy, to do so very often. It might be that I just still need more time away from being an academic and it’ll eventually sort itself.

      In the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy reading and reading and reading!

  2. On becoming forty: I have discovered that fifty is the half way point, so you have extra time now.

    1. Colleen says:

      This is excellent news. 🙂

  3. Stefanie says:

    I enjoy reading reviews and even if the review gives a few things away it doesn’t bother me since if I read the book it probably won’t be fore months or years and by that time I will have forgotten what the review said. And 40, it’s not so bad. I’m 7 years on the other side of it and it’s been pretty good 🙂

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