A friend and colleague of mine writes a review for every book he reads. And he reads a lot. It helps him to read more seriously, he said. No longer could he simply say that he didn’t like a book, he’d have to put his finger on what it was about the book he didn’t like, and be able to put that into words. The reviews go out to a list of friends via e-mail, and I recently helped him create an archive of these reviews online, so that people could search the past reviews. At the time of this writing, there were 182 reviews in the archive, each with a rating of either Poor, Ok, Good, or Great. (Only 8 fall into the latter category.)
He recently sent me this article from the New York Times, about a woman who intends to read one book a day, for a year, and write a review for every single one. She’s currently at 352 books (and reviews), so I suspect she’ll reach her goal.
All this led me to think about writing about reading. When I studied books for school, I greatly resented having to write about what I was reading, having to discuss the metaphors and authorial intent. Writing, and thinking, about what I was reading ruined my enjoyment of the book, and I looked forward to when I could read more for pleasure without the taint of an assignment. Which is why I was a bit surprised to find my friend and others assigning themselves a review for the books they read. But, upon reflection, I certainly recognize the merit. The times when I have attempted reviews, such as for this site, it has certainly helped to crystallize my thinking about the piece and I do feel my understanding and appreciation grew as a result of making my evaluation more formal. However, in all these cases the decision to write a review came afterward. I worry a bit that entering into a book with the knowledge that a review will have to be written would bias me towards searching for flaws, would place upon my head the critic’s hat whilst knocking off the reader’s. In the end, I am undecided as to whether the foreknowledge of having to think carefully about a novel will ruin one’s enjoyment of the book, or increase it. For those of us that already think seriously about narrative, its elements, and how it works and does not work, this exercise may prove especially fruitful. For others, however, I can see how it would only serve as an unwelcome reminder of our elementary school days.
(Photo of Nina Sankovitch, who is reading a book a day for a year.)