BBAW: A Reading Meme (but not the “official” one)

Yesterday was the “official” BBAW Reading Meme Day, so I’m late, but I didn’t want to miss out completely. The BBAW Blog has a list of short-answer questions for participants to answer if they choose, but I’m going be different as well as late; I’m responding to another meme entirely, but it does concern reading and blogging, so I’m counting it anyway.

Many book bloggers have already addressed the questions raised by author Shannon Hale in her recent blog post, “How to be a reader: book evaluation vs. self-evaluation” – it was even the inspiration for last week’s Weekly Geeks assignment –  but I’m just getting to them myself, so please bear with me here.

Hale wonders if online book reviewers are more focused on subjectively rating the books they read than on objectively discussing them, and how that may affecting our reading experience:

I wonder how the focus on rating is affecting, even transforming, our individual reading experience and attitude toward books.

In my opinion, there are more interesting questions to ask myself after reading a book than what I would rate it. What was the author trying to do? Did she succeed or fail for me? What devices did she use to create her tone, to reveal characterization, to paint a world? And not to say that evaluative questions are all wrong either.

For example:
I loved this book so much. What was it that resonated? Would I have loved this book as much ten years ago? Five years ago? Will I keep loving it in the future? Where am I in my life that this is the story I wanted and needed?

I reacted negatively to this book. Why? What is it about this story or characters or style that hit me so strongly? What does that say about me?

…I believe a story is 50% the book’s role + 50% the reader’s. I like to read to learn about other kinds of people, go far away, experience things I would never know or see. But I also like to read to see my own reality more clearly, understand my own world and own self better. By limiting a reading experience to “how awesome the author is” or “how lame the author is” I’m denying myself a full reading experience. I’m shutting out possibilities of how I personally grow and change after reading a story. I’m denying my essential role as reader in the storytelling experience.

…So, I wonder if book evaluation is trumping self-evaluation. I wonder if we get so caught up in gushing or bashing, shining up those stars or taking them away, that the reading experience is weighed too heavily on the side of the book itself and not enough on the reader. After all, reader is more important than book. Reader is the one who changes from reading, not the book. Reader is the one who lives the magic of storytelling.

She poses some questions for book reviewers in connection with her premise. I’ll take them one at a time:

1. Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience? 

Yes. I think it’s made me more attentive and analytical as I read, and I definitely think that’s a positive thing. The main reason I started doing book reviews in the first place is because I had a hard time remembering much about what I read and when I read it. That’s much less of a problem now – partly because I can always go back the review to refresh my memory, but also because I’m more engaged with my reading as I’m doing it, and my mental muscles are more involved.

2. Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up? 

Sometimes. It depends on the book, and it’s more likely to happen with a book that’s making a very strong impression: “Wow. This is going to end up with at least a 4 out of 5.” Most of the time, though, I don’t think too much about the rating until I’ve got most of the review written, because I really try to keep it consistent with what I say in the discussion.

3. Does knowing you’ll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place? 

No, that’s still governed by whether I’m interested in reading a particular book. I don’t intend for that to change, ever.

4. Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book? 

Sometimes it does, but it’s generally more of a clarification than a dramatic change. Articulating my impressions of the book – themes, characters, plot elements, quality of writing – has a way of making me more aware of my response to the whole of that, and of my reasons for responding as I did.

5. What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world? 

When I first started posting reviews, I didn’t use ratings. One of my early readers (who, sadly, has disappeared from the blogiverse since then) asked me to start assigning ratings, and I’ve continued with it because I think readers find it helpful. I know that I find them helpful when I read other people’s reviews, but more so when they’re associated with a good discussion of the book’s content and the reviewer’s thoughts about it. A publisher’s description, plus three sentences and a rating, really doesn’t do much for me. I want to know why the reviewer responded to the book as she did, and what motivates that rating. Going back to what Shannon Hale said, I’d like to know how the reviewer experienced the book as a reader. That’s much more useful to me.

6. If you review a book but don’t rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?

There are certain books I won’t rate. Most of the time, they’re nonfiction and don’t have a narrative arc – they may be prescriptive books about how to address certain issues, and I just don’t see how meaningful a rating is for books like that. In those cases, I’ll include a recommendation about the audience I think might benefit from reading the book instead of giving it a rating. I think my role in reviewing books that may not be suitable for a rating is primarily to share information about them, and also to discuss how I experienced them as a reader myself, which affects the recommendation.

What are your thoughts on reading and rating?

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  1. I don't rate, and my reason is personal. I grade papers for part of my living, and I blog for fun–so I don't want to have to "grade" or rate the books I read. It gets to be an attitude that spills over into other parts of your life ("that turn was a B minus, dear… This cheeseburger is a C plus because even though it has no pickles, it's thick with real cheddar on it.")

  2. I am glad to see you post on this topic, Florinda. It's been interesting to get everyone's take on it. Like you, I'm a much more careful reader since I began blogging. Although for me, I think it really began when I began keeping a reading journal pre-blogging days. I definitely see this as a positive.

    Great answer to #4. That is so true. Sometimes in the debriefing phase (what I think of as my review writing), I do end up feeling a bit different about a book than when I first finished it–but more so for clarification's sake, like you said.

    I think ratings are very subjective. Look how many different scales and definitions of ratings there are out there. I use them more for personal reasons–and even when I've considered not using them, knew that I still would privately. There have been a couple of books I haven't assigned ratings to. One was a memoir about the Holocaust. I just couldn't think of how to rate it. It was such a moving book. Not the best written perhaps, but one that I think is worth reading. I just couldn't think of how to rate it at the time.

  3. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I guess I'm the opposite about ratings. If I hadn't started using them here, I probably still really wouldn't think about them much. But there are definitely some books it's hard to sum up that way.

    And I can't agree more about how book blogging (for me, it's a reading journal online) has made me a more involved reader. It's like going back to literature class, but more fun because I get to pick the books :-).

    I like characterizing the review-writing process as "the debriefing phase." It really fits.