“Thoughts On” is a feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.
Writing and giving really good book reviews is hard. You have to figure out exactly what you liked (or didn’t like) in a story and then articulate that clearly enough so that others fully understand your reasoning. You have to get across your idiosyncratic pet peeves even if this is the only review a person is going to read.
In short, you basically have to let that person into your head using only words. And that’s hard, man, really really hard.
Of course, good book reviews come with practice. You read a heck of a lot of literature and figure out those pet peeves. You understand to what degree something irks you, how language affects your reading experience, and how important the ending (or the slow beginning, for that matter) is. You can give reason to the most specific degree possible. You’re able to explain, in the most detailed (yet fluid) words, exactly what was wrong or right in a story and why that thing either annoyed you or made you fangirl. And then, after all that, you actually start writing or recording reviews, honing your language, format, and thought breaks. You learn to take notes while reading, build a framework before writing, and then craft a cohesive argument around your points of discussion, using specific examples from the text to back up your thoughts.
Reading reviews is so incredible easy, though, and belies the actual effort it takes to craft them. As a reader, you skim the summary to see if you’ll even like the book being discussed. Then you might read the first paragraph of the review. If that seems interesting, you’ll either keep reading or just skip down to the rating or talking points. But what if the reviewer didn’t include a starred rating? What if they didn’t go back through their own review and pull out two to three main points of discussion? Doing these things is not for everyone, and it isn’t fair of a reader to expect these things to occur all the time in every review one reads.
If you don’t know, I run a (fledgling) YouTube channel where I post (rambling) videos of myself talking about the books I’ve read. Actually getting around to recording a video is hard, though, as it often happens weeks after I’ve finished one book and already started a second. I take notes while reading, but I don’t write scripts before I sit down to record, and the argument I end up making sometimes forms itself while I’m recording. I know that only a handful of people are going to watch these, but I still find them easier to make than traditional print reviews – even if I’m covering the same information and it’s more work to record and edit a video than it would be to write and format a review. I use a starred review system, and do my best to end my videos with the main tenets of my argument, but I don’t provide summaries of the novels about which I’m speaking. Viewers, thus, have to already know the plot of the story AND sit down to watch the whole video or else skip around and risk missing information (from my experience, there’s no good way to paragraph-break a video).
As a reader, though, I like to read book reviews. I like to start with a summary of the book in question, find a starred review somewhere near the top, and then read through bulleted points – whether before, within, or after the review itself. What helps even more is if I know the reviewer’s go-to books for each rating they offer. In a best-case scenario, I can see how they rated a specific book vs. how I rated that same book, which gives me perspective on whether I should even trust what they like or didn’t like within a story. What if their pet peeve is my narrative kryptonite?
Which begs the question:
- Are book reviews for readers or reviewers?
- Is the way in which you read reviews different than how you write them?
- Do you find yourself relying on the same one or two review sources, even if you haven’t read any of the books they recommended or actively disagreed with their opinion?
Have your own thoughts on book reviews? Let me know!