On Reviewing Books: We Are What We Read
Remember chewing your pencil when you had to write a book review for school?
At some point in the process of writing a book review, I nearly always regret saying “yes” to the assignment. A good review requires at least two readings of the book, note-taking, special attention to themes and structure, and comparisons of where this book fits with others in the field.
In other words, sweat is involved.
Yet I keep reviewing books. Why? Why do others do it?
Here’s the beginning of a list. I need you, below, to help me complete it.
- To honor the writer and the work of writing.
2. To serve the community of readers. Because someone I respect asked me to write for a publication I respect. In my case, I began writing for The Christian Century magazine when the book review editor Richard A. Kauffman, himself an author, asked me to review a book for publication in 2006. I’ve reviewed fifteen books over the years. All reviewers in this publication have pages like this one where you can find previous reviews. So another benefit is easy retrieval of past work.
3. To establish a baseline of credibility in a field. Right now, for example, I am interested in the literature of aging (jubilación) which means I have a whole new field to enter, if not master. Some gurus joke that all you have to do to become an expert is to read five books on the same subject. My educator self is offended by that joke, but my learning self knows that all expertise begins with intentional reading of books combined with the wisdom of life experience.
4. To appreciate hundreds of people who took time to review my book Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World on Amazon and Goodreads. And to reviewers who published reviews in print and online.
My most recent review was the longest and most comprehensive one I’ve written. The new book review editor Elizabeth Palmer suggested that reviewers might want to share portions of their reviews on their blogs. Readers who want to learn more can continue on the website.
Many people review books. And for a much longer list of reasons than the ones I listed here. I’m eager to hear your stories as a reviewer. Do you do this? Verbally? In a book club? On your blog? For friends? If you are an author, how do you feel when your own book gets reviewed?
I’m only a book clubber, and will never be an author, but I am an avid reader. Our book club lasted longer than many, but began to come apart at the seams after some of us tried to introduce, no not introduce, but quietly demand, that some non fiction books be included. We were tired of the never ending angst of “dysfunctional family” novels and hoped to feed our minds from another direction. I was disappointed when I reviewed THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT by Oliver Sacks with much background, because it wasn’t entertaining. First off, it was entertaining and made you very aware of the spirit and courage of people facing huge personal crisis and loss. Secondly, why must we be entertained in a frilly way so much of the time? It must be difficult for professional book reviewers to listen or read as a book is lambasted when you work so hard at what you do, not saying that all reviews are positive, but you have put your heart, soul and time into an opinion that you value and hope others will as well. I think I just wrote a ridiculously long sentence. Ah well ?
Norah, you are quick on the draw today! Thanks for starting the conversation. First off, please know that as an avid reader you are a writer’s best friend! We who write love book clubs and people who read as their favorite pastime.
Sounds like your club came to a parting of the ways between fiction and nonfiction. I think it’s natural for groups to form and re-shape themselves according to the tastes of their members. Hope you and the others who enjoy nonfiction are able to keep supporting each other.
You raise the interesting question of how to review when you don’t like the book. Usually I solve this problem by choosing books I already have an interest in and want to read. I can perhaps offer some negative criticism, which I would be gentle about, but I have no desire to “savage” a book. Like you, I have too much empathy for the person who worked so hard to create the book.
Don’t worry about the length of your sentence. Long or short, they are always welcome. 🙂
I like to review a book because then I know that I will read it carefully from cover to cover, make notes, possibly read it again, and think about it a lot. A good fiction is easy for me to read, so I’d rather review books that I might not pick up as easily, or perhaps just glance through them and put them aside.
If I don’t like a book I usually don’t review it. A friend asked me to review a book she had written, and I promised I would. It turned out to be a big disappointment. I had to be honest, but I also tried to say some nice things. Our relationship has not been the same since. I think people who get published a lot develop a thick skin, something like politicians, and just don’t pay attention after a while.
Interesting that you choose books to review that you might not read carefully otherwise. Good point. Certainly you are forced into the discipline of careful reading and thinking when you agree to do a review. Sometimes we need that. I have to agree that I do this also. Otherwise, I might be very sloppy in picking up and putting down books.
Sorry about the strain the gentle criticism of a friend put on your relationship. I hope time helps heal the wound.
It’s hard to believe this when you are starting out as a writer, but negative reviews, unless they are hatchet jobs, can still be helpful. What is worse than a bad review? No reviews. Being ignored.
As you point out, bestselling authors get lots of negative reviews. But they usually have so many positives, they can keep the negative in perspective. Or laugh the whole way to the bank. 🙂
Books are my friends. I feel a kinship with some of them as others feel about their pets. Honestly! That’s why it has been so hard to pare down volumes on my bookshelves when we moved.
I’ve eyeballed the books on your shelves and recognize several titles. I perked up when I saw Dr. George Vaillant’s Aging Well. I devoured this book just before I retired, fearful that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in retirement. I smile now, realizing how futile it has been to worry.
About book reviewing, I try to read/review only books that I think merit a “5” (or 4) rating. Art is long, but time is fleeting, and I want to focus on books in my genre (memoir), how-to books on writing memoir, and other inspirational books. I publish a few reviews on my blog, but most land a spot on Amazon, Goodreads or Rifflebooks, where I can post lists.
My book reviews begin with the reading process: I take copious notes and if it’s a book I own, I underline or highlight passages. I even dog-ear library books (shame on me) but press out the creases before returning.
Your current review reflects the benefits of quiet contemplation. If BrainyQuotes is to be trusted, Einstein said that the monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind. In your case, a resounding Yes! All of your reviews are worthy, but this one is “primo” because in a two-book format, you use an elaborate comparison/contrast structure to support your thesis, braiding in literary and cultural references in beautiful prose.
At the moment, I’m reading Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. As I followed the author’s harrowing experience, I learned more about brain functioning and marvel how intricately and wonderfully we are made. Susan Cahalan’s memoir marries her own mysterious illness with medical information about a growing diagnosis: auto-immune system disorder.
Great topic, wonderful post – I look forward to other comments.
To your list, I’ll add a # 5: Reading and reviewing books is my way of keeping my life in balance. Right now during this very stressful period, it’s my way of keeping sane.
Thank you, Marian, for your kind words and for reading the complete review so carefully. I wrote the review in June before coming here to serene Collegeville, and it did vex me until I wrestled it to the ground. I also had great help in writing it. Lucy Kalanithi gave me 30 minutes of her time to fill in some of the background to When Breath Becomes Air, and my friend Margaret, a writer and medical doctor, gave me very helpful criticism before I turned in the essay.
Sounds like you are still feeling the stress of moving. In that case, I wish you lots and lots of books to review and add #5 to my list above.
I review books! I’ve even reviewed a couple (together, alas) for The Christian Century . . . probably thanks to you. Countless others on my blog. My latest for a journal appears today in River Teeth, a reconsideration of the classic memoir by Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place:
It’s torture to review, but I must like it. I think I feel I really own a book that way. One of my principles is to try to assess a book in terms of what the writer was trying to do. I may have gotten that idea from Virginia Woolf in her essay on reviewing.
I’m glad to know you find reviewing difficult also, Richard. I admire your reviews so much, and I’d hate to think you can just whip them out.
“True Grits.” Great title for a book I purchased when I read your first mention of it. Maybe I’ll get to read it one day. 🙂 At least it got to the shelf.
“I feel like a really own a book that way.” Yes. That may be the best reward of all!
Shirley — Another THOUGHT PROVOKING post!
Do you do this?
Yes, I review books and post my reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and I’ve just recently started using Riffler as well. If I can’t write something positive about a book I’ve read, I keep it to myself. I only post reviews on books I feel I can honestly recommend to others.
Verbally? In a book club?
In the book club I belong to we go around the circle and verbally say what we think—good, bad, or in-between.
On your blog?
Never on my blog. The reason? If I say “yes” to persons A, B, and C, and then am asked by person D whose book I can’t honestly recommend after reading it, I would feel horrible about telling them I can’t share it on my blog after all. So my policy is NO across the board. I keep book reviews separate from my blog (although when I read WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR, I made a single exception and went on and on and on about how much I loved it)…
Absolutely! With the up-front caveat that I will only post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and Riffler if I can honestly recommend it.
If you are an author, how do you feel when your own book gets reviewed?
I’m brand new to the author game. When I reached out for author endorsement blurbs, I reached out to 15 authors and thankfully received 15 positive responses. However, I know the day is coming when I will receive a big ouch!
For example… my book doesn’t hit the shelves until Nov 1, but a person on Goodreads has already given me 1 star, with no supporting comments. She hasn’t even read the book and yet gave me a single star. Did that hurt? You bet it did. But there are a few other people I don’t even know who couldn’t possibly have read it yet either, yet gave it 5 five stars. So the pendulum swings both ways and I’ve got to put my big girl panties on and play, or pack up my marbles and go home.
Wow, Laurie. You give us lots of good things to chew on here — better than a pencil. 🙂
That big ouch you got on Goodreads I predict will evaporate when your real readers start to write real reviews. Goodreads is a place where some people have enjoyed inflicting pain, like trolls, but they are in the far minority.
Yes, we do need to be prepared to have our feelings hurt from some encounters with reviewers along the way, but I know you will rejoice, soon, to see how many people benefit from the careful work you have done in making your book a gift to others. Can’t wait to see what happens next.
I do review books and agree with others that it’s a difficult task. I feel obligated to be balanced, sharing what I liked in a book but also pointing out where it fell short for me. Where I post depends – Amazon and Goodreads, yes. Possibly my blog. I’ve become more stingy with my blog, because I’ve been burned by promising a post when it turned out to be a book I wound up not liking.
The reason I review is because I know how important it is to authors to get reviews, both as feedback to their hard work and because it matters to readers and in the book rankings. I’ve benefited greatly from readers who took time to review my books. I guess you could say I’m paying it forward.
Carol, thanks for providing your rationale for reviewing and for describing how you do it. I too have moved off-blog for most of my reviewing. I feel your generosity to others in your “paying it forward” explanation.
Your two books have garnered an amazing number of reviews. My hat is off to you. Becoming a successful author after leaving a senior-level job in PR makes you a great example of “jubilación.”
Thank you for this thought-provoking post. As a reader, I count on reviews, both written (book jackets, magazines/journals, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) and verbally from colleagues or friends. There are always waterfalls of books classics or newly published to consider. Professionally, I have read hundreds of books on various leadership subjects. Sadly, far too many I found lacking. In my recently adopted genre, I have benefited from the NAMW webinars which use memoirs (most recently Brain on Fire). These webinars are probably my favorite form of review, as a developing memoir writer, because they provide an unpacking of the book at a deep level. I believe another reason, or perhaps one embedded in your reasons, is to lead the reader to books which provide higher quality thinking or unique life experiences, points of view or superbly written. I have only written “reviews” on Goodreads, or Facebook, or LinkedIn. When I am considering a book (live review) for purchase, I follow a process I learned in college via a book ironically, How To Read A Book. The process is to examine the table of contents, the appendix, notes pages, citations if provided, index, and then the preface for the author’s purpose and preview. These resources are typically not provided for memoirs and when I find an appendix of some type I’m more intrigued.
Fascinating, Audrey. Especially in light of some advice not to use either preface or intro or epilogue. I used all three. :-)It may well have been my background in grad school to use all those places plus the Table of Contents (which I also included) when I was trying to assess the ideas and values of hundreds of books, any one of which might pop up in my doctoral oral exams.
Keep writing reviews in those places. The authors really appreciate them!
Thank you for bringing up this important topic. You asked for help with other reasons to write reviews. I have another slant on what and how to write.
Perhaps we need to make an important distinction between reviewing and recommending. The reviews you refer to are literary reviews, with all the value you point out. But especially because they are so time-consuming, nobody who reads more than a handful of books a year can review more than a fraction of the books they read. The world deserves more.
As authors we need dozens, even hundreds of Amazon reviews, especially early ones posted on launch day. That would be an insurmountable challenge if people thought a literary review was required. Not so! Just an hour ago I was on Skype with a fellow author, discussing how long reviews should be and how to get reluctant readers to post them.
Tell them “I’m not asking for a two-page review. Two or three sentences telling readers why you loved the book (or not) and what value it may have for them is ideal.” This message defuses tension and is a simple enough request that most can and will comply.
Here’s why short is good. I’ve asked dozens of non-writing friends how helpful reviews are to them. Less than half read them at all. They hear about a book and buy it. Of those who do scroll down to reviews on an Amazon page, few read more than three or four reviews and skip any that have more than three or four sentences. Most stop with scanning star ratings. Maybe 1% wade all the way through a literary review on Amazon. This is surely different in newspaper or magazine book review sections.
If Amazon readers are your target review audience, dash off a three-sentence, off-the-cuff “flash” recommendation review and pat yourself on the back. These are easy to read, approachable, and sound convincing to ordinary readers. “This sounds like something I might write,” they think. Do this for all the books you read and double post the same words on Goodreads. Do it as a gift for authors and readers alike.
I used to write literary reviews for the Story Circle Network website. Those reviews were long and thought-full. They did take ages to write. I quit writing them because I realized that especially due to the time required, even I was not reading other reviews there, and because the time it took to dig up required supporting information was cumbersome and time-consuming.
I will always respect, admire and value literary reviews, but I no longer write them unless I’m passionately committed to a book. It has to be worth the effort for me personally without regard to whether anyone else reads it. Those reviews are a gift to myself.
Sharon — That was an important distinction for me, thank you. In it I learned that I am not a book reviewer, I am a book recommender. And I feel so much better because my “blurbs” are concise (a paragraph or less).
Thank you again!
I agree with Laurie, Sharon. You’ve made several useful distinctions here. And each kind of review/recommendation has value both to readers and to the author and to the publication or website where they are posted.
Embedded within your comment is implicit advice to new authors: help make it easy for your reader to leave a review. If you assure them it need not be more than a few sentences, many more will write them. No need to chew the pencil for an Amazon review. Just offer your best summary of why you liked or didn’t like the book — the way you might in a book club circle.
Yes, i have writer’s anxiety, and I’m leaving the lower case i there to illustrate the situation.
I write reviews on Goodreads of books I read, and I do it for myself, so I’m not as thorough as you are when doing it for being published. I simply want to remember a few things that wacked me when I read, and, if I re-read, I know I will be wacked anew by other things.
Here is a book that fits your current genre: Old Age by Helen M. Luke. In 2011 I entered this paragraph on Goodreads: “Compared to childhood, ‘old age’ is uncharted. Helen Luke illuminates the tasks of my time of life, using the tales of Shakespeare and others as the inspiration, and without leaving the realm of mystery. You don’t need to wait for old age to take up the task of living into simplicity.”
As I’m exploring the author on Goodreads, I realize there are other books of hers I would like to read. And, so it goes.
Shirley, I’m grateful for all the books you’ve introduced me to.
Dolores, I love your verb “wacked.” 🙂 I know exactly what you mean by it, I think.
And Helen Luke wrote one of the best books ever on age. I think it’s somewhere on that top shelf in the photo above.
And you touch on another value at the review sites like Goodreads. One book can leave you to another when you read and click. Others can do the same with yours.
Keep writing in lower case if it helps with anxiety. You are in good company — with both anxiety and lower case writing. You and your words are more beautiful than you know.
I began reviewing books as a new professor, about 15 years ago, as a way to start building my vita, and springboard to other publications. I now see it as a good discipline for me as a writer, in that the 5-10 reviews I write each year helps me practice both my writing and my reading skills. I require that students in my magazine writing class also write and try to publish reviews, because of the discipline it takes, but also as a stepping stone to other types of publication. Reviews also allow me to be part of the Mennonite community of writers, to be part of that conversation. I was grateful when I had the chance to review Blush a few years ago, as doing so introduced me to you. 🙂
Here’s a new reason, Melanie, thank you. It’s a great piece of advice to offer young academics. Reviews are hard, but they are at least focused. They are therefore stepping stones to monographs and books. Like crunches in the gym, they build our mental muscles.
And you add another value — a way to connect to a community of other writers who are not nearby geographically.
I am so glad you reviewed Blush. You did so with great sensitivity and perception. Thanks again, and keep reviewing. If I see your by-line, I always read the review. Wait, I think that’s another reason! Your reviews collectively reveal your own voice and values.
I began reviewing books when I started publishing my own. It seemed practical at the time. I needed content for my blog and other social networking activities and, as an avid reader, I was always “talking to” or “arguing with” books and their authors anyway!
Making time to write reviews helps authors on three fronts: it creates relationships with readers, it connects you with other writers, and it improves your own writing.
I eventually posted so many reviews on Amazon that I ended up on some sort of list that had me inundated with review requests–and not just for books!
Hate to say, but this has soured me a bit on reviewing. There’s a quiet satisfaction to reviewing a book I’ve looked forward to reading and then enjoyed. A review was a way to close a circle–if that makes any sense. Taking on lots of unsolicited review requests seriously undermined that pleasure. My review was suddenly not an act of communion between reader and writer–but merely a box to tick off on someone’s marketing plan.
Since my husband died, all of my activities have been in flux, but I’m slowly returning to book reviewing. I know my blog and newsletter will benefit from some TLC! However, my days of three to five book reviews a week and accepting nearly all unsolicited requests are over. I need to practice discernment here as I do in the rest of my life.
Carrie, I can tell that you are in the process of transformation, not only on your blog, but in your life. I wish you much grace and peace.
You already have perception. You must have become a Vine-reviewer? I see that designation. Those people are like Super-hosts on Airbnb, people who can be trusted by the public. And the more you review, the more requests you have. No wonder it felt like a gerbil wheel after awhile.
Here’s wishing you the satisfaction of closing the circle on books, not being made dizzy by running on the wheel.
Writing book reviews is my hobby. It’s my way of capturing the reading experience for future reference. Posting my reviews on Goodreads.com allows me to share my reviews with others, and also read the reviews of others with whom I have an on-line relationship.
Frequently a “like” from a Goodreads.com member will prompt me to reread a review that I posted years earlier. My reviews contain just enough memory prompts to remind me of the experience of reading or listening to that book. My old reviews thus allow me to enjoy in a reflective way the original encounter with that book.
I generally average about fifty books per year, and currently I have over six hundred reviews posted. This hobby is one way for me to hold on to a portion of my past.
Oh Clif, I’m so glad you joined this conversation. You are the only person I know who reviews as his hobby. You have built quite a reputation at Goodreads. Six hundred reviews. Just amazing! Shows what happens when you consistently read and write over time. I love reading your reviews.
Archiving, memory prompts, helping the pleasure to last: “My old reviews thus allow me to enjoy in a reflective way the original encounter with that book.”
You are not only cataloguing your reading experiences, Clif, you are writing a kind of embedded memoir at least in your own mind. Does that make sense?
A memoir of my reading life, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.
My friend Lanie Tankard, who has reviewed a number of books on this site and numerous others, has posted a review today on the Women’s Memoirs website: http://womensmemoirs.com/memoir-book-reviews/memoir-lanie-tankard-reviews-maria-semples-new-today-will-be-different/comment-page-1/#comment-293129
She evidently doesn’t tire of reviewing. Like Clif, above, she seems to thrive on this kind of gift to readers and writers.
Lanie’s reviews on this site can be found here: http://shirleyshowalter.com/?s=lanie+tankard
Muchas gracias, Shirley! I do enjoy reviewing. I also enjoy reading—as well as writing. The three processes form a triad for me that I use to enhance my love of words. As Book Review Editor at Woven Tale Press, I’ll be focusing on indie publishers each month:
Here’s a list of my past reviews on other venues:
Thanks for chiming in with more examples of your reviewing prowess, Lanie. You have indeed turned reviewing into an art form. Authors are so grateful for people like you who read and write carefully, with appreciation for others who also love words. Cheers! To words and books!
Oh, but I treasured this post, Shirley, and I certainly related to it. Thank you.
It brought back so many memories, but one of the most vivid was about Gloria Steinem’s THE DEATH BOOK. During my freshman year in college in 1968, a visiting professor, who had been asked by Steinem to critique her ms., shared excerpts with us for more than an hour and said he’d told her the world needed her words. I certainly needed the words he shared from the ms. A good friend’s mother was dying from cancer, and just that day I’d learned she’d died. Words have a way of reaching us when we need them.
I love hearing this story, Marylin. What are the odds that you were in a class with a professor who had read the book that Steinem wanted to publish, but couldn’t,long ago? Wow.
And even reading the manuscript was helpful to at least one person in the class.
Steinem, ahead of her time in so many ways. But you. You were the rememberer.
Dear Shirley, Another one for your list, if you know a writer, encourage them, let them know how much their writing has meant to you. Through the few books I have read, I have often been encouraged to read other authors, authors I may not have read otherwise. I used to enjoy doing book reports, my problem was condensing the book report so it didn’t turn into a ‘book’ of it’s own.
So Shirley, I often tell my friends and co-workers about your book, ‘Blush’. Through this book I got an inside look at being Mennonite. I often reflect on the dependencies not only on how the men’s dress is not that different from the average male. Whereas, the women are still so often caught in the protocol of the culture, the ‘plain’ dress.
I so enjoy reading and participating in your blog, I enjoy the fact that you respond to each and every comment that you get.
June, thank you for adding the opportunity to connect personally to the author as one of the benefits of writing a review and/or to have a conversation via blogs or social media.
I’m so glad that Blush spoke to you and that you tell your friends about it. I’m also glad you reached out to me so that we can have these weekly chats and you can also get to know others in the community here. It’s one of the ongoing rewards of being an author.
Thank you for this wonderful piece, Shirley. I look forward to sharing the review on my author page where I focus on grief and healing. I haven’t read The Violet Hour, but I never go wrong when I follow your recommendations. Although I’m personally drawn to fire and feeling in response to death, I love this line: “She loves ice as much as Kalanithi loves fire.”
Another line that grabbed me: “The closest she comes to transcendence is this sentence: ‘In the actual moment, you do not have a choice. Grace finds you. Acceptance hunts you down.’” I wonder. I would have said this was true until being with my brother at his death. Maybe grace found him in the singing we did in the last hour, but my brother didn’t consciously come to a place of acceptance or even considering that they were no more medical choices. For him, there was no grace–no sense of beauty or comfort as there had been with my husband’s death. As you can imagine, this hurt, but I don’t know his actual experience in those last silent hours and after the last breath. We never know.
Thank you, Elaine, for these kind words and for sharing the review. You also touch on another reason to review — to help others! You are nurturing a wide audience of those who have found your wisdom healing during a time of grief and who know that they will need your words in the future even if they are not actively grieving in the present.
Yes, The Violet Hour may help you understand your brother’s type of dying better. Especially read the chapter on Susan Sontag.
Like you, I prefer fire, but I am learning that acceptance of the fact that we have little control over the how as well of the when of dying makes me fiercely grateful for each day of life I have. And allows me to think of my morning meditation time as preparation for dying.
Shirley, I appreciate this post and the many thoughtful comments it’s sparked in your wide readership. I write reviews for my own record, to support other writers, and as a way to share good books. On occasion, I’ll set a book in its wider context of other books, but most often my reviews focus more narrowly on the book itself as I don’t take the time or have the breadth of knowledge to do more. Reading in a particular area as represented by your book shelf provides that wider context which I think adds to a review. All the best in your reading, reviewing, and writing!
Thanks, April. Looks like I missed this comment the first time around. Hope you find it now.
All kinds of reviews serve a purpose. I have enjoyed many of yours. And I don’t have the energy to do the kind I did for CC above very often, so most of my reviews are also stand alones. It is very educational, however, to take a look at a whole field sometimes. Even then, however, one usually only scratches the surface.
I really appreciated this post and am glad that the Collegeville Institute called my attention to it! I confess that I struggle with book reviews. I very much enjoy reading them, and sometimes I enjoy writing them. But lately I feel somewhat constricted by the process. It does change the way I read, to know that I’ll be reviewing a book. Perhaps I just need a little sabbatical from reviewing! That being said, your celebration of the genre and its role in the lives of readers and writers is refreshing – so, perhaps I just needed this reminder. Thank you.
I’m glad, too, that the Collegeville Institute featured both of us in their list of fall publications. I have enjoyed reading your Christian Century essays! And we share a publisher. Hope to stay connected. Thanks for reaching out!
Taking a sabbatical from anything that needs rest sounds like a good idea to me.