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Why Do I Review Books: An Answer to A Question

Markk posed the question in his post here - after reading a statement about whether or not the world "needs" one more piece of writing on Edith Wharton or F. Scott Fitzgerald or D.H. Lawrence. I started to answer the question in a comment, but decided to write a post about it, instead.


The quote in question is:


But every time I go into the university library and wander down the aisles of English and American literature, I have to wonder: Does the world really need yet another bit of writing about Edith Wharton or D. H. Lawrence or F. Scott Fitzgerald? These writers are like those hotels with 10,000 reviews on Tripadvisor. Checking today, the current count on Goodreads for The Age of Innocence stands at 134,391 ratings and 6,378 reviews. Stop. Just stop. Will yet one more opinion make any difference?


Ahem. Let me begin...


First of all, the world needs a lot of things - starting with a reliable and effective vaccine for Covid-19 and solutions to the problems of global climate change, income inequality, worldwide hunger and child abuse. But let's be honest, the world doesn't need any book reviews at all, no matter the subject matter or author. So, I would start by just acknowledging that like many of the things that make life lovely, book reviews are unnecessary. They are a luxury. Every single one of them could be wiped from our memories tomorrow and the world would proceed more or less without so much as a pause.


But the real place that my thoughts begin is here - this quote reduces book reviewing to an inherently transactional process. A book review is only valuable if it "makes a difference." In other words, if it persuades a reader to engage in some sort of a transaction - to read a book or to forgo a book. I think that is far too narrow of an analysis. 


Because that's certainly not why I write about books on the internet. I don't care if anything that I've ever written about a book results in a sale for the author, or in the book being obtained to read, or the opposite - that it results in a person who planned to buy or read the book taking it off of their list. I feel really uncomfortable when someone responds to a post of mine by saying that they've now lost interest in a book, or they were planning to buy it but now they won't, or that they thought it sounded terrible but I've convinced them to buy it.


I'm not a marketing arm of a publisher (or a competitor), and I have no interest in that role. If people read what I've said and say to themselves "I don't think that book is for me," that's fine. But I never want someone to decide that a book is - or is not - worth reading because of something I've written. Those are decisions to be made by the individual reader and allowing oneself to be persuaded by the opinion of a single reader means that a person might miss out on something that they would love.


The way that I see it, people have been talking about books since they were invented. And people who read a lot, in particular, really love to talk about books. There is an unbroken line of conversation about Jane Eyre that started when it was published - and boy, was it controversial - that has continued into the present.


For example, when I write about Jane Eyre (40K reviews on GR), I don't do it because I'm hoping to convince someone to read Jane Eyre (although, honestly, everyone should read Jane Eyre). I also don't do it because I think I have any particular insight that the world can't live without. I don't think that we will ever say everything that there is to say about Jane Eyre - in fact, I think that we could talk about it for another 173 years and we still won't have said everything there is to say about it, which is one of the things that makes it a classic. I write about Jane Eyre because I have something to say and I want to add my voice to that conversation that started in 1847 when it was published. 


We live in this amazing time when it is possible to widen our own access to the endless discussion so that we can have it with people who live all over the world, who also love to talk about books. What a thing.


And then, of course, there is that aspect of writing about books online that allows me to look back over the years and remember a book that I've read and what I thought about it at the time. I've never been great at keeping paper lists, but between Booklikes and Goodreads, I have an imperfect list of everything that I've read and reread since 2013. According to my challenge widgets, that's around 1300 books total. I certainly haven't written about everything I've read, but looking back over time has shown me trends in my reading. 


So those are the reasons that I write about books on the internet, and really none of them have anything to do with the sense that the world needs my opinion on much of anything, and they have even less to do with the idea of convincing anyone to read anything in particular.