Friday, 16 October 2009

Writing About Reading

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.)


Christa Dang said...

I think that it definitely varies for each individual, however, I personally agree with your perspective; reading something and knowing that I'm basically required to write some sort of assessment afterwards makes me that much more resentful about it than if it were a personal decision after having read the piece. I find that, not only am I unable to completely focus my attention on the material at hand, it also really dampens my personal enjoyment of it. But I can see the merits of actually writing a review; the process does force a person to stop and really consider the piece critically and it definitely helps to consolidate it in a person's understanding.

I also find that resentment, in these particular situations, is generally limited to moments where it feels as though there is no personal choice in the matter of writing about the material that's being read. Perhaps the reason why your colleague and Nina Sankovitch have no misgivings about writing reviews for each book they've read because they've personally chosen to do so.

Raymond A. Mar said...

I think that you've made an excellent point here Christa, that the sorts of folks who would make such a conscious decision are also likely the same folks who wouldn't be particularly perturbed by this self-assigned assignment. For myself, I've occasionally found myself unable to "turn off" the inner critic, particularly when watching films. I find myself remarking, internally, on things that are done particularly well or particularly poorly, and have to work to shut that part of my head off so that I can enjoy the film.

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