So Kate asks, “When and why do you read reviews?” And who am I to turn down a great idea for a blog post? As I consider my answer, I feel like I need to call it a confession: I don’t like reading book reviews of authors I’ve never heard of.
Well, that’s true when it comes to fiction and even more so for poetry. As for nonfiction, I love reading those reviews because I can often get the gist of the book without going to the trouble of … actually reading the book. The vast majority of nonfiction books that get published I’ll never read, and book reviews are a great way of keeping up with the ideas out there, a great way of learning a tiny bit of the latest in history, science, psychology, economics, politics, etc. etc. Sometimes I do end up reading the book; often, though, I get what I can from the review and move on.
As for fiction, though, that’s another story. The truth is that I feel overwhelmed by the number of novels out there and I’m sometimes resistant to new authors. I’m not especially pleased with myself for this; I’d like to be more adventurous in my reading. But I wait to see how widely a new name gets talked about, to see if the people I know, in person or online, talk about an author, to see what other authors recommend that person. I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of good writing this way, but I don’t know what else to do, really, when my to-be-read list is already so long and I’m feeling too pressured by books I’m already aware of to take a look at new ones.
So I avoid those reviews of books that are completely new to me, unless I happen to glance at a sentence that catches my attention and then I might read further. But that doesn’t happen all that often.
The other problem with reading fiction reviews, for me, is that I’m bored by plot summary. I’m happy to read a plot summary after I’ve read the book because then it all makes sense to me, but beforehand? It’s hard work to make sense of a novel’s premise from a few paragraphs. I’ll read the reviewer’s opening hook with interest, but when the plot summary begins, my mind wanders and I’m off to the next review.
What I like to read about in a review are things like the reviewer’s sense of the author’s writing career and how the new book fits into it, or about writing style, or comparisons between the author under consideration and other authors, or the reviewer’s judgments about what works and what doesn’t. I find myself reading the opening and closing paragraphs of reviews because that’s where I most often find those elements; the middle gets lost in the plot summary.
As for poetry, I’m even less likely to take a risk on a poet I’ve never heard of before, so those reviews I generally ignore also.
Maybe I should make a point of taking a risk on a new author every once in a while. If I decide to make up some reading goals for the new year, maybe that’ll be one of them: to read a book by an author I’ve never heard of before and that nobody has recommended to me. So, readers, don’t give me any ideas.