Classic Books · The Reading Life

Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book? What is the function of book reviews?

Is it to “save” people from a “bad” art experience? Can bad art exist? If it’s art, isn’t it, by definition, beautiful? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be failed art or attempted art or, you know, just … not art?

Recently, I read a time travel novel for middle grade readers, Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. I bought the book without knowing anything about it other than the jacket copy’s description because time travel novels are one of my favorites. (Perhaps this explains why I ended up with two copies … oops.*) When the story opens, 13-year-old Margaret’s father has been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. Desperate to save him, Margaret draws on her ability to time travel. Her quest takes her back to 1938, the year a tragedy soured the life of Lucas, who grows up to become the judge who sentenced Margaret’s father.  The story took a turn I won’t reveal (spoilers) other than to say it moved me to reflect on the power of living in the present moment. It’s a message I need to be reminded of often as I have a bad habit of obsessing over the past.

I rarely read extended reviews before reading a book. A friend’s recommendation, or the appeal of a book’s themes or jacket copy, is enough to inspire me to dive in. Extended reviews are for later, during or after reading a book I have a strong reaction to – whether it’s being moved, impressed, angry, surprised, provoked, etc.

When I read reviews, I’m not looking for a breakdown of what did and didn’t work according to one person, even one very smart or respected person. I can decide that for myself. Nitpicking about perceived flaws doesn’t interest me either, unless they’re so egregious as to disrupt my ability to engage in a story’s world. (If that’s the case, though, my reading experience probably isn’t interesting enough to inspire me to look up other readers’ responses.) I don’t expect a book to be perfect. That would be weird. I mean, what’s perfect on this planet?

I read reviews to connect with others’ experiences. Did others see and feel moved by this too? Did they see something I missed that will deepen my experience of a story?

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book? Arriving at the turn in Saving Lucas Biggs, I put the book down, sighed with appreciation, and went online to look up reviews. I was curious to see how others responded to it. And then this happened: I found a complaint about something I hadn’t noticed in the book. Or if it registered, it didn’t intrude on my larger experience.

Except … once I saw the comment, I couldn’t un-see it. I found myself arguing with the review instead of thinking about the book’s deeper message. But that’s how negative criticism works, isn’t it? Someone says you look bad in the blue sweater you love so very much, and you don’t look at that blue sweater quite the same way again.

I’m not so impressionable that the criticism of Saving Lucas Biggs usurped my moment with the story. Still, the negative response entered my mental landscape and required mental energy to push aside when I’d rather spend that energy thinking about what the book is trying to tell me about the past and the present, what my fascination with time travel might signify, what I want to work on about myself. Obviously, reviewers can write whatever they want. For myself, I’m not interested in faultfinding reviews, either writing or reading them. Reviewers who share what a book inspired them to think about are the ones most likely to inspire my future reading choices.

The moment you put a negative thought into the world, you make it so. It’s the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. And it can become a distraction. We might focus on minutiae that have little relevance on readers as thinkers and seekers moving through the world. A story may be reduced to a series of bullet-pointed pros and cons, as if we’re trying to choose between top-of-the-line stainless steel refrigerator models or the best pair of long underwear. Incidentally, this can be so with positive reviews as well. A story is picked apart to lead to and justify the final judgment: This was good. Or this was not good. It diminishes rather than enlarges.

The goal becomes to make a judgment and provide evidence for that judgment rather than to think through an experience, a character, a story, an idea and be moved, changed, inspired in the process. Perhaps the best critics can do both. Perhaps picking apart can become an occasion for delving deeper. Too often, though, it seems deciding if books are good or bad becomes an end in itself. And good or bad is so subjective – and binary – as to be largely irrelevant to my reading experience.

When the end is to pass judgement, we may skip over the good stuff, the life changing stuff, the complicated, impossible-to-reduce stuff – what an idea means, its application in the world, and who we are or want to be in relation to said idea. Of course, if a book doesn’t give me these experiences, then I won’t have anything to write about, at least anything interesting to me.

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book? So what does all this have to do with reading classics? What can be liberating about it is, at some level, classics are already accepted as art. None of us can know whether the contemporary novels we read and loved this year – stand-outs for me include Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Nix by Nathan Hill, among others – will be read in 200 or 2,000 years. Barring access to a time machine (please click here if you have one). It can be tempting to think about and debate. But ultimately, it’s not our business or decision. In any case, I value what these books have given me right now, in the present we share. I inevitably read them a little differently than I do classics because contemporary authors’ references are more familiar to me. Contemporary authors help me reflect on the particulars of the world we jointly inhabit, if I let them.

With classics, we might argue with or be puzzled by them, challenge or be challenged by them, be frustrated with or inspired by them. We might critique why some books have been privileged over others. We might debate their merits in relation to each other. We might even dislike them (gasp). But if they’ve been read for 2,000 or 200 years, they have resonated. They have something to say beyond their time and place and particulars.

This can create space for us to have a conversation about language, stories, ideas, and characters beyond good and bad, beyond art and not-art, beyond binaries. It can create a space for thinking about what it means to be human in any time and place.

What do you think? When do you seek out other readers’ responses? Does it depend on the genre of book?

This post is part of a series that explores reading classic literature. The first piece in the series can be found here.

* Clearly, I needed #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks.

4 thoughts on “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews

  1. Haha! Love the link you put for people who might have a time machine! 🙂

    As always, your post got me thinking. I personally read reviews after I’ve read something, not before – mainly because I don’t often have other people around me who read the same kinds of books I do, or like to discuss them, etc. Same with movies, which I’m obsessed with dissecting, probably even more than books (Maybe because I agree with you that books don’t have to be perfect, but with movies, there’s a whole team of experts working on them, so I guess I feel like they should be pretty darn close? Thanks for making me question my opinion on this and try to delve into it a little – I never had, before).

    I think what you said about negative criticism (LOVE your sweater analogy, btw – so true!) makes a good point, but I don’t know – personally it rarely bothers me, unless I’m really passionate about the book. Otherwise, I find it interesting to read what other people did or didn’t like. I do hope, though, that people won’t refuse to read something simply because of a critique. But of course there are people like that, sadly.

    Your conclusion about the advantage of classics is a really interesting one, as well. I have a lot to think about here – as always, thanks for that!

    1. I chuckled putting that link in there. 😉

      That’s an interesting point about movies. I hadn’t thought of that, but I can definitely see what you mean. It’s something I want to think more about since my sense of films as an art form isn’t as developed as with literature. Thank you for giving me something to think about, as always!

  2. I definitely agree with you about wanting to read reviews after I’ve read the book to connect with other readers. It makes it a little less solitary! I do sometimes look at reviews before I’ve read it just so I can get a better sense of whether it’s for me, but this is often just looking at the overall star rating or scrolling through quickly. I don’t want to be spoiled, or go in with certain expectations, but I also don’t want to waste my time on a book I won’t enjoy when there’s SO many others I’d like to read.

    1. Yes! That’s exactly what I might do before reading a book – a quick scroll through Goodreads to get a sense of what a book is about and how it has been received. I’m with you that too much information may over-determine my response. You’re so right that reviewers will stick major spoilers in a review, sometimes without warning!

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