Learning How to Read

The worst kind of book review is the one-star review we see on Amazon.com saying “Book arrived torn and in poor condition”. It gives no information on the quality of the writing and knocks down the average score, skewing the result. The second worst is the review that says “This book is truly awesome!” and gives no further information.

If you even bother to google the topic, there are tips for writing book reviews that give you a number of pointers such as, “Start with a couple of sentences describing what the book is about” and “Discuss what you particularly liked about the book”.

A little more sophisticated guidelines for book reviews are available on the internet from numerous universities. (ex: Trent U, UNC, ANU, and many others. Just google “book review university”)

These how-to’s are pretty rudimentary, but even a quick glance will tell you that most amateur book reviewers do not bother to follow even these.

But what if you were a professional book reviewer, a young writer working for, say, the Akron Beacon, hoping soon to be working for the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Chicago Tribune, maybe even the New York Times someday. You are given an assignment to review a book and this is the first step of your career. How would you write it?

Even an entry level book reviewer for a local newspaper should be head and shoulders above the level of your average literature major who just read the university guidelines on how to write book reviews. Whether the book itself is good or bad, the quality of your review will make or break your career. Forget about the career of the author, you are not his editor or publisher. You have your own career to worry about and it all depends on how you dissect the book at hand.

A young person in such a profession as reviewing books should be expected to know much about literature, perhaps a good deal about literary theory and literary history as well. Just having read some generic fiction would not cut it. You would be expected to know how to take apart a book properly, even if it is just a new installment in a YA vampire series.

I read long ago that for every shelf full of books published on how to write a book, only one book or less is published on how to read a book, yet a book on how to read will teach you more about writing than a book on how to write. I have no doubt that it is true. If you do not know how to read, how will you know whether your book will stand up to the scrutiny of serious reading?

Writers are usually readers. But do we really know how to read? Do we really pick up all the psychologies and symbolisms correctly? Can we be interpreting the meanings of books wrong?

Put yourself into the shoes of that reviewer once again, whose career depends on writing a high-quality review of the book you wrote. It could be a scathing review or a glowing review, but either way it must be a quality review. The reviewer is not just bad mouthing your work. It is a deadly serious business.

Maybe serious criticism does not matter any more. A whole generation of readers have misinterpreted Kerouac’s On The Road, a story of ostracized loners in search of their niche in the world, as a celebration of non-conformity, hoping perhaps that being cynical will get them laid. Some self-fashioned literary critic has based her criticism on the age-weathered misunderstanding of On The Road and positioned herself as a feminist maverick by criticizing the “misogyny” she picked up through her misguided (and outdated) interpretation. That kind of willful warping of the text could be the order of the day in the 21st century.

But it still does not change the fact that a writer must understand how to read, and how his own work is read, even in a world where his audience, and critics, no longer can. A writer must write (and read) as if criticism still matters.

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