I have been doing a lot of thinking about reviews (mine in particular) lately. What makes them good? What information is necessary? I don’t exactly have concrete answers to these questions, mostly because I think it is highly subjective, but I can talk about how I approach reviewing, and more importantly – reading. The short version of this can be found in my Review Policy page, but the following discussion provides greater explanation.
Last year, I took a graduate course on reading and listening comprehension. It was more geared toward reading and listening in a foreign language, but we first had to learn what reading (and listening) entails. I won’t bore you with the technical details (and to be truthful, I probably don’t remember all the details), but one important factor in a person’s reading experience is the purpose for reading. As a teacher, this means I should give my students the reason(s) why they are reading a particular piece (gain knowledge? practice a specific skill?). As a reader, it means that my purpose behind reading a book influences the way I will eventually perceive it.
I am not a critic. And despite being 1 course shy of a Master’s degree in English, my emphasis is on teaching the language to non-native speakers, not literature. When I read a non-school book, I read for entertainment. When I do this – and when I’m truly entertained by the book – I read faster, and I notice fewer details because my mind is focused on the overall meaning and story line. So reviewing a book I especially like can prove to be difficult to utter anything more intelligent than, “OMG, this book is awesome.” If I read a book I am not overly fond of, I read slower and I begin to pick up the details – especially those that contribute to my dislike of the book. Writing a book review about I book that I enjoyed is actually more difficult for me because the speed at which I read caused me to focus not on details that would be useful for review, but on the story as a whole. Which makes me wonder: What do people actually look for in a review?
Another thing that I learned in my course was that factors such as our background knowledge and previous reading experience can also affect how we eventually perceive a book. Our own personal preferences play a role in this as well. I read a post someone’s book blog recently (I don’t who it was or how I found it) that drew attention to the fact many people use a lot of “I” in their review. “I liked/didn’t like…” etc. To me, it is impossible to explain a book without offering my reaction to it. If you’re looking for an objective summation, read the back of the book (I always include a summary in my reviews, but it is never written by me). Reading a book is an incredibly subjective and personal experience, and how I see (and review) a book will differ from the rest of the book blogging community – even if many of us review it favorably. Something that made the reading experience excruciatingly slow for me – short chapters, for example – may not have the same effect for other readers. And when I review a book, I want people to know why I did or did not like it; my review is not objective, it reflects my opinion. This is why I try to include a “You Might Like This Book If…” section. Just because I wasn’t fond of a certain book doesn’t mean I think everyone else will dislike it, and I believe that every book deserves a chance.
Do you have a review philosophy? What do you look for in a review?