TSS – In which I get much too philosophical about book reviews

I just finished (and loved) A Reliable  Wife this morning and I’ve been sitting down and thinking about why I chose to read it.  A few months ago, this book was all over the blogs and most people were giving it rave reviews.  Everyone loved it (including me!) and talked about how engrossing it is (it is!) and how intense it is (it is!).  But when I was thinking about what eventually caused me to remember this book, when usually I forget books unless I write them down on my list, was not necessarily all of its rave reviews, but instead the impassioned negative reviews that eventually pushed me towards this excellent novel.

Sometimes, when there is nothing but praise about a book, it doesn’t necessarily make me want to read it.  No matter how  many people tell me The Help is awesome, I can’t bring myself to sit down and read it.  I really have zero idea why this is.  I’ve purchased the book, but every time I start it, I get bored and put it down.  The same thing happened with A Reliable Wife, five star after five star review did not get me interested, but those three or four negative reviews did.

I have two theories about this.  The first one is that, in my mind, a book that only gets good reviews is boring — there’s nothing in it to stir people to up, to make them question its greatness, no risks were taken.  I’m not saying that this is necessarily true, especially not of The Help (since obviously I can’t make a judgement about a book I haven’t read yet), but I would say that is generally a direction that my thoughts go in.  If there is no one that can question any single part of the book that has been written, then the author just didn’t do enough to make it worth reading.  Let me reiterate!  That’s not necessarily true with every book, but it’s something to consider.  Eventually, if a book has been universally loved, I get to it and I either love it or I don’t.

And that brings me to my second theory.  If I do begin that book that everyone loves, what happens if I am the sole curmudgeon on the planet who didn’t like it?  What if I am the one that has to do all the questioning and in the process step on many toes to get there?  What if it is just some flaw in me as a reader that I don’t love a book that has been so universally praised?  I begin to question not what is wrong with the book, but instead what is wrong with me. Now, I realize that that kind of makes me a coward, unafraid to step forward and have a different opinion than the masses, but I’m trying to be perfectly honest here.   If there are other people who have disliked a book, then I am in the free and the clear to dislike it as well.

The whole purpose of a book review is to influence people.  It’s to say, “Hello, I loved this book, I hope you will too!”  Or, “Please don’t waste your time on this one like I did.”  Hopefully, to be successful, both reviews are filled with the whys and the why nots.  But it is a nerve-wracking process, this influencing people.  What if I recommend a book that you end up hating?  What if I tell you not to read a book that would have been your favorite book of all time?  I worry about this!  Regularly!

But I keep reviewing books and obviously I’m not losing too much sleep over it since I slept a total of 10 hours last night.  In the end, I don’t think a negative review is a bad thing.  I think a mediocre review is much worse.  Strong emotion and passion, a prevalent theme in A Reliable Wife, whether that passion is positive or negative are much more powerful.  Sometimes, the truth of the matter is, that a negative review might just get me to read a book more than a positive review will.

Often, as reviewers, I think we feel bad about writing overly impassioned reviews.  Too much passion means that we can’t look objectively at something.  There are books that I am passionately in love with and books that passionately despise.  I love Time Traveler’s Wife, and even if it is flawed, that love is unconditional.  I despise Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying with such an intense hatred that trying to convince me of its merits will do little to change my opinion of it.  I’d be lying if I said that I wished every book created such passion in me, because I think it would get exhausting.   But we shouldn’t be afraid of that passion; a passionate book review, filled with love or hatred, should be our favorite kinds of book reviews, because it means there’s something in the book worth reading.

Maybe none of this  is exactly revolutionary, but my basic point is that it’s not always going to be the positive after the positive that gets a book talked about, that gets a book read.  It’s not always going to be the talking points that matter.  Sometimes it is our gut reaction to a book, those things that make us question the very purpose of a book, that lead to greatness.  I really disliked the novel Disgrace by JM Coetzee, and by disliked I mean hated, but at the same time, I do not deny that is powerful, haunting and disturbing.  Two years later, I have difficulty putting into words why I reacted so strongly against this book.  But, I think I’ve realized sometimes you don’t have to like a book to admit that it is great, you don’t have to enjoy a book to think that it is important or worthwhile.   I don’t think I would tell someone not to read Disgrace, but I would certainly try to prepare them for the intense emotion it gives its readers.

And then that just opens a whole other can of worms about the purpose of reading, but I think I’m going to leave that for another Sunday.