So I’m several months into this insane experiment, and have read and reviewed twelve books (plus one musical and some poetry). I’ve talked some about how important stories are, and generally given you an idea of why I love to read and talk about books, but I’ve never really given you a how.
Some of you may not really care about the critiquing process, and that’s okay–but I will be making one or two bigger points later on down the page, so stay tuned, even if you’re not interested in all the behind-the-scenes mechanics.
Step #1: Read the book — I know this seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many people give their opinions on a book without reading it first. But more on this later.
Step #2: Let it lie — I try very hard to make sure I have read Sunday’s book by the Thursday or Friday previous. This gives me two or three days to think about what I’ve read. It usually takes me those two or three days to write the review to my satisfaction, because I often make new discoveries or come to new conclusions during that time.
Step #3: Create connections — Books (and stories in general) do not exist in a vacuum. There is a theory which states that there are only between twelve and sixteen story themes; every new story is simply a combination or variation of some or all of the themes. This means that the story possibilities are not infinite (which is amazing, because I’m always finding new stories), which means that at some point, you’re going to stumble upon a book that makes you say, “This reminds me of…” Rather than this being bad, it’s actually a great thing. Some of you may not have read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I’ll bet that every single one of you know about concepts like love, hate, revenge, faith, betrayal, and sorrow. You may have even personally experienced some or all of these situations or emotions. That’s a connection. And where you find one, you’re bound to find at least two more.
Step #4: Blog about it — Okay, you don’t have to blog about it, but I do recommend talking to other people about what you read. Not only is it a great way to learn about other books (“If you liked that book, you will love…”), but because conversation involves a lot of storytelling, talking about books fits right in.
Some Helpful Hints
Hint #1: Book selection — I know it’s really tempting to read only the books you like, and it can really suck when you spent $20-$25 on a book that ends up being totally lame, but if you’re blogging, you have to remember to stretch out of your comfort zone sometimes. No one (not even your mother, who would read anything you wrote no matter what it was) wants to read reviews of fifty different Pride and Prejudice spin-offs. Your loyal fans are loyal because they’ve found that they like the same kinds of books you do. If you’re brave, and step out of your comfort zone every so often, maybe you’ll help them be brave, too. My favorite feeling in the world is when someone comes up to me and says, “That book you recommended was great! What else do you think I’d like?” I love helping people discover their inner book nerd.
Hint #2: It’s okay to hate the book — No, really, it is. And it’s okay to say so in a blog post, or even in mixed company (meaning at a company dinner, or when you’re at a party with people you just met). But if you’re going to dislike the book, for goodness sake, know why you dislike it! Saying something like “I didn’t like the main character’s development–it just wasn’t believable” sounds way better than some bonehead comment such as “It was just stupid.” Why do you think it was stupid?
Hint #3: The 50 Page Rule — If I don’t love the book by page 50, I abandon in. This may seem cruel, but that’s how I roll. After years of pushing myself to read books I wasn’t enjoying, I read something that make me stop: There are millions, if not billions, of books out there; and no matter how many you read, you will never be able to read them all. So why waste time reading a book you don’t like, when there are millions of others to discover that you might love?
It is okay to dislike–or even despise–a book. In point of fact, there are several handfuls of books I have read that I am perfectly convinced I didn’t actually have to read in order to become the normal, well-adjusted person I am today (ha!).
But your dislike of a book–or of books–should never, ever extend to the point where you burn them, or attend a book burning event. Burn a single book, and you have burned an idea–and once you start burning ideas, you might as well be burning people, too.
The list of books banned in the United States is extensive, and you can bet that books have been–and still are–banned in other countries, especially those with controlling/paranoid governments. Fortunately the list of books burned in the US is much smaller. Various editions of the Holy Bible have been and are still burned by various Christian groups, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is often set ablaze by people who believe that the novels encourage witchcraft and the worship of Satan.
Please do not be like these people. Please do not hate ideas simply because they are different from your own.
My main point is, if you’re going criticize a book (and especially if you’re going to go on a crusade against it), do everyone a favor and read it first. Then when you criticize it, you can stand on your own two feet when people discuss it with you.
Ways to Read Well
“Personally I found myself asking four questions about every book: Could I read it? If I could read it, did I believe it? If I believed it, did I care about it? And if I cared about it, what was the quality of my caring, and would it last?” – Philip Larkin
“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag–and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is a part of a trend or movement.” – Doris Lessing
And remember: Good readers will…
- have a purpose for reading;
- think about what they already know;
- make sure they understand what they read;
- look at pictures when possible;
- predict what will happen next;
- form pictures in their minds;
- draw conclusions about what they read;
- try to figure out new words; and
I don’t know if this entry has gotten all of you tinkling with excitement about starting your own blog, but I do hope it’s helped you see the process of “how it all happens,” and I hope that it gets you excited about thinking a bit more critically about the stories you read.