A Constant Reader on book reviews

Like most things in my life, I have a love/hate relationship with book reviews. I’ve written a few, and I always find it a challenge.

I’ve always been an avid reader, checking out huge stacks of library books from the time I learned to read. I was insulted when other children would say “Look, mommy!” while pointing to my stack, and mommy would reply, “She’s not going to read them all.”

Yes, I WAS going to read them all, and YES, I DID read them all! (Okay, so they were mainly books in series like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, and what have you, but I was 7. Gimme a break.)

The original Constant Reader, Dorothy Parker

I have always devoured books, read voraciously, sat up late just to finish a really engrossing tale, so it only makes sense that I want to review books as some part of my living. I basically can’t NOT read; sitting on a bus for several hours a day, or waiting in offices and meetings would be totally unbearable without a book or magazine to help pass the time. I am the textbook example of the person who always has reading material, even when popping into the post office (you would be too, if you’d seen the lines at my branch!) or attending a party. You just never know when a book will suddenly become your life raft on a sea of boredom, as I have learned all too well from the times I have tragically NOT had reading material at the ready.

Reviewing books comes fairly naturally as well, as I like to rave about things I enjoy, and vent about things I truly detest. But put all those words down on paper and act as if they represent all types of readers, from all across America and possibly the world?! Whoa, nellie. That’s a scary proposition.

For one thing, explaining why I love, love, LOVE a book is often difficult. I run out of adjectives, and feel a bit like a fangirl saying “This book was awesome! Read it!” Good work deserves competent praise, and sometimes I feel kind of incompetent at explaining what makes a certain book so magically delicious that you should be spooning it up like Lucky Charms.

Secondly, explaining why a bad book is so offensive to your tastes is also tricky when you belong to the literary world and know that, someday, someone will be reviewing YOUR book. While many people enjoy snarky reviews that thoroughly bash the author for his or her efforts, I always try to find an angle I can use to focus on the good. Sure, there’s plenty of room for criticism (constructive, anyway), and if the book is purely awful, I will say so as directly as I can. But I feel like there are a lot of books out there that aren’t necessarily bad; they just needed a little more time and effort from their authors or editors. Or maybe they’re trying too hard, and coming off as genre fiction when they aspire to be something more. Or maybe they’re just not my cup of tea, because I’m not the sci-fi convention-goer to whom they’re meant to appeal.

There are plenty of reasons that books fail. And there are more and more reasons, as everyone views him or herself as a writer. Reviewing books can be an exercise in futility, as we drown in a sea of books.

But it can also be really fun to read the latest literature, to keep up with modern writers, to see what your peers (and heroes) are up to, and to gain insights into what works and what doesn’t.

It can also be really relaxing to just lie down on the couch and immerse yourself in someone else’s world for a while. And trying to write a review of this escapism seems slightly ridiculous at times. Sometimes, saying “I loved it” (or “Tonstant Weader fwowed up,” à la Dorothy Parker) is enough. Isn’t it?

What’s your take on book reviews?