A Young Woman Reading, photo by cliff1066
Recently, a good friend received a book to review because it was related to her interests and she would really be the best person to review it. But, she said, she hated it. The book was just awful. She tried really hard, but she couldn’t review the book in good conscience because her publication doesn’t print negative reviews. The reason is simple enough: They want to give their readers suggestions of things to read. What good is a negative review to a reader?
Well, this conversation caused me to rethink my approach to book reviews. As you all know, I love to write reviews because doing so requires me to reflect on the books I’m reading and think about what makes them work, and also because there are a lot of bad books out there and writing a review gives me a chance to say, “Hey, guys? You’re killing trees for this? This is not acceptable.” That means, of course, I write negative reviews. Not always, of course. I try to give a legitimate critique when I hate a book, but I don’t try too hard to nice it up.
You see, I have an ideal book in my head. It is a book in which everything works like a move-in ready house. It is a book in which all the important ideas are fully developed, the narrator is totally believable, the exact right amount of editing has been done, and it all comes together just beautifully. Reading my ideal book isn’t like reading at all. It’s sublime.
I’m looking for a book that will recreate a very specific reading experience, one I imagine all passionate readers have had. For me, it was the first time I read Sylvia Plath’s “Elm,” which just knocked my breath out. When I read “Elm,” I thought I was going to die. No kidding. I was sitting at a coffee shop talking poetry with a couple friends, someone handed me this poem, I read it, and I didn’t speak for 20 minutes. It was just. fucking. incredible. I’m looking for a book that can do that, and I’m not sure there are any out there.
Are my expectations too high? Do I need to find something to love in the average, mediocre, and rather dull books that come my way? What about the ones with offensively poor editing? The more I ask myself these questions, the more it sounds like I’m talking about potential boyfriends rather than books. And when I think about books in terms of boyfriends, I remember all the terrible dating experiences I had and how I didn’t know how great a relationship could be until the right one came along, and then… yes, it was like reading Plath for the first time again, except way hotter.
So, getting back to the point, what’s one to do about bad books? Here are some thoughts on the matter. Feel free to replace the word “book” with “date” as you go along.
- If a book is particularly bad, don’t bother finishing it, unless it is so very bad you feel compelled to study it and figure out how something that bad can exist.
- If a book has potential to be good but just doesn’t quite get there, don’t get attached, but do reflect on it later (perhaps in a review) to pinpoint where it went wrong. You can learn from this.
- If a book is really fantastic, be prepared to be at a loss for words. You may spend the next 20 minutes or 20 years trying to put your finger on why you love it so much. Enjoy.
Finally, should one write negative reviews — of books or boyfriends? Yes. In school, my girlfriends and I ran with a relatively small circle in which everyone pretty much dated everyone else. It was standard to give a full report after a party as to who kissed like a washing machine, who was an annoying drunk, and so on. Thanks to my girlfriends’ information-sharing policy, I avoided a lot of pretty horrible dates. Shouldn’t books be the same way?