One of the things that makes reading more of an effort than it used to be is my sense that when I read something, there’s usually something I’m trying to do with the text. I’m reading to pick up information, or edit something. I’m reading to give feedback to the author, or because my book club is going to be meeting and I want to be able to say something.
Or, sometimes, I’m reading to write a review: a self-imposed duty that comes with being friends with someone, or part of a community, or having taken it on as a commitment in some moment of insanity. Or simply because it’s become an impulse, part of my way of reacting to and processing a book: part of coming to know what I think, and then (let’s be honest here) using it as a chance to speak up and say something. Start a conversation. Because, hey, what’s a better topic of conversation than talking about a book you’ve read?
(Much insight into my character is revealed by the fact that I’m not actually joking about this last. Those with a disposition like mine, I anticipate, will see nothing odd about this: what can be a better topic of conversation than a book? Nothing, obviously.)
Judging strictly by numbers, I don’t actually write that many reviews. But each of them is, for me, a way of grappling with and trying to understand something about writing, about ideas, about myself. A review is an act of cultural and intellectual as well as literary criticism — at its best, in my view at least.
In the spirit of which, I offer up the following small list of books I’ve reviewed in the last year:
There was another book that I had agreed to review, but partway through, I determined that I was not part of the book’s target audience and couldn’t really do the book justice, so I begged off on that one. Getting that off my plate was a surprising relief: not just a matter of one fewer thing to do, but something I had come to dread doing, partly because I didn’t think I could do it well.
It’s not a coincidence that all of these are in the realm of Mormon literature, three about works of fiction, two about collections that include sf&f stories. I’m part of a fairly small community of Mormon letters; there’s a need, I feel, for feedback, for the sense that someone out there is actually reading what you write, as well as for promoting titles people might enjoy. (I’ve been known to print out my book reviews and share them with people from my Mormon congregation, in the spirit of trying to entice them into reading the book in turn.) And there’s a vague sense that in so doing, I might be contributing as well to the development of a conversation not just about literary works but about literature in general within the Mormon sphere.
It’s a small output — smaller than I feel it ought to be, especially when the work I put into the review is nothing compared to what the author put into the writing. But if a review of mine puts one or two more readers onto a specific title, or makes a writer feel that he or she has been engaged with on a meaningful level, or provides me with a new insight or two into life and/or writing, then the effort has paid for itself.