or, Why I’m bad at writing book reviews.
Books belong to their readers. – John Green
The writer side of my brain loves this quote. It means that you, as the reader of my words, can interpret those words in any way you like. And that is absolutely fine with me. In fact, I find it incredibly flattering that my lowly words would inspire a unique thought someone else’s brain. Wonderful!
But as a reader, I’m not so sure I like the idea of taking ownership of thoughts inspired by a book. Ownership implies responsibility, something I strive to avoid, constantly.
I recently joined in a discussion about art appreciation and said: I find it easier to understand what I’m looking at if I know what the artist was thinking or feeling when they created the art. I have a really hard time forming an opinion about a painting or a sculpture when I don’t understand anything about its creation. Is it good or bad? I have no idea. Did the artist work really hard at it, or did they knock it out in an hour or so? Did the artist feel like it was the best thing they’d done, did they fill it with a decade’s worth of pain and angst? If I don’t know anything about the creation of the art, how can I judge its worth?
The same is true, to an extent, with books. Books are easier to like or dislike because the elements inside are easy for me to pick apart. However, I still have a terrible time putting those feelings into words.
Who am I to voice an opinion? What do I know? How can I know enough about the story to write anything meaningful about it. I wasn’t there during its creation.
Many years ago, I took an online creative writing class. One of the assignments was to write a review of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I hated the story, and I hated the assignment. Maybe because the experience was mostly anonymous, I never saw the teacher face to face, and maybe because I was angry, I threw out my uncertainty and I ripped it to shreds.
The teacher loved it. She said it was the best review she’d ever read. Obviously, I didn’t just write the words “I hated it.” I wrote carefully and thoughtfully, knowing I was going against popular opinion. I put a ton of effort into digging deeply and writing specifically about what I disliked. I must have read that story backwards and forwards a dozen times to do what I did. What inspired me to that level of effort? What enabled my honest feelings? Was it simply the anonymity of the situation?
I’ve never really been able to do it again. (go ahead look at some of the reviews I’ve written on this blog – they’re pretty awful.)
I stumbled upon the following Tumblr post:
Ok so I’ve been thinking about a thing John Green has said a few times.
“Books belong to their readers.”
While I understand the sentiment, I can’t help but vehemently disagree for a couple reasons.
1. Does anyone remember how Horton Hears a Who was used as pro-life propaganda? And Dr. Suess’s widow had to come out and basically say fuck you because pro-lifers were actually completely wrong? Books belong to their writers.
2. Y’know how words mean things? And when you put words into sentences, those sentences mean things? And how if someone decides that sentence means something that it actually doesn’t, that person should be corrected? Sentences belong to their speakers. Books belong to their writers.
3. Y’know how the guy who invented the .gif came out and said “it’s pronounced jif”? But we’re all like “no fuck you it’s totally gif”? Words belong to their makers. Books belong to their writers.
That is all.
This is an interesting (if poorly written – but that’s Tumblr for you) thought. The first and third points are specious, but number two is worth thinking about: “Sentences belong to their speakers.” I think therein lies my problem.
A book is a whole. And I can easily say, as a whole, I liked or didn’t like a book. But it is down at the sentence level that I run into trouble. Do I really have the right to express my opinions of the thoughts or feelings contained in a sentence? What if, as wittneyhancockisatlarge says, I decide “that a sentence means something that it actually doesn’t,” should I be corrected? What if an author or a ‘qualified’ expert says to me, “I (they) meant it this way,” and that changes my entire experience of the book? What makes a qualified expert and why do I feel so unqualified?
But is it a better, more valid, understanding? I think John Green would say no. In order to get any meaning out of a book, you must put meaning into it. The reading of a book is a deeply personal experience. You bring with you only your perspective, only your experiences. My reading of this book at this moment is an intensely unique event. When I read a sentence and it sparks a thought, that thought cannot be wrong. It is my thought. My feeling. It is real and therefore true.
If I write any reviews for the books on my September reading list, I will try to remember that my feelings and opinions are valid, I am the qualified expert on them after all. But, if I decide to share those thoughts with the world, I must put in the effort to prove their worth.