One of my favorite things to do, besides reading books, is talking about books, especially with others who have read the same ones. But lately I've noticed a tendency to ask the same question:
"Did you like it?"
I question that question. I question it with perhaps a questionable reason, but question it all the same. "Did you like it?" Is that the only reason to read a book? To like it or not like it? Is that the most important part of reading?
This has been on my mind lately also as I've been musing on the prevalence of review sites and blogs. On most reviews (not professional ones, but reader reviews) it's commonplace to rate the book. The frequent measurement is 1-5 stars. This is so normal, it's only recently I've begun to question that too.
Let me jump back a moment. Years ago, when I started subscribing to the New Yorker, I was disappointed in the movie review section. The reviewer didn't rate the movies! He just talked about them for a page or two, discussing the choices the director, actors, and screenwriters made, analyzing the pieces, opining on what worked and what didn't, and comparing that movie to others and to current happenings in the world. But he didn't give me any evaluative starrage! A thumb up or down! A quick and easy way to sum up the quality of the film and therefore decide for me if it was worth my time and money! I resented that. For a while.
But after a year or so of reading his reviews, he became my favorite movie reviewer out there. How much I would rather sit inside his discussion of the movie, his observations, even when I disagreed, then have the whole flick discarded as a number. I find it enlightening, fascinating, thought-provoking. But he is a rarity. As are book reviews online that discuss and observe rather than rate. I wonder how the focus on rating is affecting, even transforming, our individual reading experience and attitude toward books.
In my opinion, there are more interesting questions to ask myself after reading a book than what I would rate it. What was the author trying to do? Did she succeed or fail for me? What devices did she use to create her tone, to reveal characterization, to paint a world? And not to say that evaluative questions are all wrong either. For example:
I loved this book so much. What was it that resonated? Would I have loved this book as much ten years ago? Five years ago? Will I keep loving it in the future? Where am I in my life that this is the story I wanted and needed?
I reacted negatively to this book. Why? What is it about this story or characters or style that hit me so strongly? What does that say about me?
This is starting to sound overly psychoanalytical, and that's not what I intended. Personally, I don't like reading self help. At all. (Hmm...what does that say about me? Interesting...) And I definitely DO NOT thinking reading fiction should be confined to self-evaluatory exercise. But I think that can be part of it. As I've said elsewhere, I believe a story is 50% the book's role + 50% the reader's. I like to read to learn about other kinds of people, go far away, experience things I would never know or see. But I also like to read to see my own reality more clearly, understand my own world and own self better. By limiting a reading experience to "how awesome the author is" or "how lame the author is" I'm denying myself a full reading experience. I'm shutting out possibilities of how I personally grow and change after reading a story. I'm denying my essential role as reader in the storytelling experience.
Even "bad" books, even books I just couldn't love, or even like, can be fascinating to me. They change the way I see the world too. Just like the old adage--what you dislike most in other people is what you dislike the most in yourself--I believe that what I dislike most in books highlights some of my own fears, insecurities, worries, and prejudices. I'm thinking of a couple of books I read this summer that I did NOT like. Honestly, I'm still glad I read them. I've stewed over them more than some of the books I breezed through and loved, and I think they've improved me as a writer, as I keep growing in understanding of what I want and need from a story, and how I can deliver that in my own books.
So, I wonder if book evaluation is trumping self-evaluation. I wonder if we get so caught up in gushing or bashing, shining up those stars or taking them away, that the reading experience is weighed too heavily on the side of the book itself and not enough on the reader. After all, reader is more important than book. Reader is the one who changes from reading, not the book. Reader is the one who lives the magic of storytelling.
Some things to discuss for those of you who review books on blogs, amazon, goodreads, etc.:
1. Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?
2. Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?
3. Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?
4. Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?
5. What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?
6. If you review a book but don't rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?
I'm very curious about all this and hope you feel free to speak freely (and kindly and respectfully, of course) even if you disagree with me.