In this day and age, people don’t even buy a toaster without reading reviews first. Amazon, Yelp, Goodreads, Angie’s List, there are dozens of online services that let consumers read countless reviews, see pictures from all angles, and even videos of products in use. My grandma, who doesn’t have a computer or the Internet, was very intrigued to hear that I could read strangers’ reviews of their toasters on my cell phone. She also wondered why I would do that, but given that her toaster had just broken after a few months of use, it did seem handy.
But what does this have to do with literature? Book reviews and recommendations have existed as long as books have existed, and didn’t rely on the Internet: plain old word-of-mouth and book columns in newspapers did the trick just fine. In this day and age, however, the information is more accessible than ever: if none of my friends (or even my Facebook friends) have read a particular book, I can simply type the title into Google and have reviews at my fingertips. This can be a good thing, because if a book is universally trashed, I will know to avoid it, or it can be a bad thing: negative reviews can put me ‘on guard’ to notice a book’s shortcomings, or positive ones can get me so excited that I feel let down by the book.
An example of putting me ‘on guard’ was our recent TBT book discussion, Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff. In the podcast, I mentioned reading reviews before I got to the book. They had pointed out some cultural appropriation issues and incorrect usages of Japanese. Armed with that knowledge, when I got to those sections of the book, they grated even more. I was expecting them, I knew they were coming- ugh, there they are. This biased me to dislike this book. I had known a bit about Japanese language and culture, but reading critical reviews had prepared me to notice a lot more.
On the other hand, it wasn’t goodreads or Amazon that positively reviewed His Dark Materials (another recent TBT episode) for me. It was my friends and fellow participants in BWP/TBT, Rebecca and Madeleine, who had both read the series when they were younger and both loved it. I respect both of these women and their opinions, we had similar reactions to some other books, so I felt prepared to love the series. Rebecca, in particular, is my cousin and we had swapped books and book recommendations countless times growing up. I was surprised that I hadn’t read HDM yet. Thus ready to experience a new favorite series, I dove in…. and disliked it instantly. It simply did not stand up to the expectations I had built for it. This unfortunate circumstance repeated itself after reading their overjoyed reviews of Red Rising, which Rebecca called “a delightful literary experience,” and I considered “like a cake that had good ingredients, but got burnt.”
I sometimes find myself playing library book roulette- I grab whatever ebooks are available, without checking reviews or even genre sometimes. This is how I encountered the book Still Alice, without any expectations or knowledge. (Apparently there was hype and it was made into a movie, but somehow I missed that until after I read the book.) I was absolutely floored by this piece of writing. Now, I can’t say if my experience would have been different if someone had recommended it and said it was one of their favorite books of the year, but I can’t help but wonder. Having expectations coming into a book does change your reading of the book.
I try not to overhype media when I present it to my friends and family: when I learn that people haven’t read my favorite books, I deliberately play it cool. “Oh, well if you’re into x genre, you should think about checking it out.” Somewhere along the line (maybe I got burned by inflating someone’s expectations) I realized that “OHMIGOD IT’S MY FAVORITE BOOK EVER, WE HAVE TO GO BUY YOU A COPY IMMEDIATELY, YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE IT SO MUCH YOU’LL WANT TO GET MY FAVORITE QUOTE TATTOOED” might not have the desired outcome. (This wasn’t exactly how Rebecca and Madeleine presented His Dark Materials or Red Rising, but what can I say? People can get excited about their favorites!)
There’s no doubt that reviews and recommendations for books can be useful in helping you find a new favorite or something to avoid. I just need to remember to take them with a grain of salt: even my cousin and I, who like many of the same things, can still have different views on a book; and even if someone on the Internet points out a book’s shortcomings, it can still be enjoyable for others. Toasters are a bit more objective- either they work or they don’t. (Well, okay, maybe some work for thinner bread and some for bagels, but that’s still more quantitative than book reviews.) Books can work for some and not others!
If you’re interested in biases for and against books, I suggest you check out Madeleine’s blog post “The Curse of Knowledge,” about how having (or not having) background knowledge about a book’s subject can change your perspective!
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.