Too Many Books, Too Little Time
Last week, one of my clients asked me to review her new book. It’s a good book and it should be reviewed, but I had to explain to her that I was not the right person. There are a lot of reasons for that. She is a friend. Her publishing house is a client. I know people who are interviewed in the book. It would just be impossible for me to appear objective, even if I could be objective, in talking about her book.
After I spent five minutes stumbling over my words explaining that to my client, she laughed and told me that she knew all that. She did not want me to write a review. She just wanted to know what I thought about the book. I breathed a sigh of relief, pleased that my client was so reasonable. I was also pleased that I could honestly rave about the book.
That discussion got me thinking about how I select the books that I chose to explore in my BiblioBuffet columns. I have a great big Pile O’ Books in my living room that increases in height every week—no matter how much I am able to read. Books come to me from a lot of different sources, and I request a lot of books, too. In addition to writing for BiblioBuffet, I also write for Renaissance magazine and Book Page, among others, all while practicing law and I hope being a good husband and father and son and friend to the people in my life.
To say that how I select a book is an important process for me is an understatement. I do not have nearly the time to read that I would like yet reading contributes hugely to my sense of balance and emotional health while I am juggling the many things that I have to juggle. So it is that I have developed my own method for choosing books, a method that is both science and art. It considers ethics, practicality, my own competence, and my personal wishes. Relationships, both real and imagined, can play a part, as can my experience with a writer’s work and any bias that I think I might have with respect to a writer or a subject.
I begin by approaching the great Pile O’ Books. This in and of itself is a formidable task. I break the books out into two equally towering bundles, one of books that I have requested and one of books that publishers have sent me of their own accord. Books that I have requested get first consideration. After all, if I have asked for a book, I feel I have a duty to give it serious consideration for a review. Of course “serious consideration” does not mean that I have to give a book a good review. It just has to mean that I am going to open the book and try to read through it. If I can read the book, I can write about it.
Careful readers of my column may have noted, however, that I have not yet written a review of a book that I have not enjoyed, at least in some way. There is a reason for that. If I don’t like a book, I am not going to finish it, and that happens a lot. I want to enjoy what I read and I also want to give my readers a sense of what they should be reading—not what they should avoid. Indeed, just because I do not click with a book does not mean that someone else won’t like it. I am also a firm believer that there should be a rule for reviewers everywhere that unless the reviewer has read the book from cover to cover, the book should not be reviewed.
For example, a few months ago I picked up a copy of Starr Smith’s Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot. If ever there was a book that I was primed to enjoy, that was it. I am a huge fan of Stewart’s and much interested in his WWII military service. Unfortunately, I just could not get into the book because it was not about Stewart nearly as much as it was about the things that were happening around him. As a result, I did not feel that I was learning about Stewart’s experience during the war and that is what I wanted. Walter Cronkite, however, would disagree with me, as he noted in his foreword to the book:
[J]ournalist Starr Smith—wartime Eighth Air Force intelligence officer who worked with Jimmy Stewart briefing the combat crews for their daring daylight raids on German targets—has raised the curtain on Stewart’s gallant service as a bomber pilot and air combat commander in World War II. It’s a true story of personal knowledge, with sharp insight, and told with skill, respect and admiration.
I’ll grant that Smith wrote with respect and admiration but I just did not perceive the skill or insight or even the personal knowledge that Cronkite lauds. Maybe Cronkite was accurate in his assessment. Maybe I was more on point. Maybe we were both right. What’s more important, at least from my perspective, is that just because I did not enjoy the book does not mean that my readers won’t enjoy it. If I write about a book that I do not enjoy, I can only discourage my readers from exploring it and that might deny someone a good experience. I do not want to do that. Rather, I want to encourage readers to seek out books—not to avoid them.
After I have selected a book I want to read, I also need to determine whether it is a book that I should consider reviewing in light of my own code of personal ethics and the expectations that BiblioBuffet has of me. If I am acquainted with an author, can I really be objective in reviewing his or her work? What if I know an author but not so closely that I can truly consider him or her a friend? Even if I can be objective, can I credibly appear objective? BiblioBuffet has strict guidelines for its reviewers, the first of which is that we are not to review books by writers we know. Of course “know” in the Internet age could mean anything from “regularly comes for dinner” to “hey, aren’t we friends on Facebook?”
By way of example, I am a big fan of the writings of Pat O’Donnell. I loved O’Donnell’s The Brenner Assignment and was captivated by his They Dared Return. My reviews reflected my admiration. Over time, however, I had occasion to get to know O’Donnell on a more personal level. We have spoken on the phone, discussed his new projects, and generally enjoyed conversing with each other. A by-product of that relationship, however, is a loss of objectivity on my part. I want O’Donnell to be successful in his writing just as I want my other friends to be successful in their careers. More importantly, I don’t want to ever face that moment when I have to speak to him after saying something negative about his book. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Although I might personally feel that O’Donnell’s next book is going to be a winner (and I really think it is!), I know that I need to be dispassionate when I assess a book and that is rather difficult when one is an unabashed fan. Perhaps reviewers should not be fans but I suspect we all have our own likes and dislikes. I am content to recognize my biases and not to let them compromise my own writing.
By the same token, I need to know my own limits and not attempt to analyze or comment on books that are outside of my core competency. I can write about history. I can write about science as long as it is at a high school level. I can consider a lot of fiction. Biographies are fine. Well, maybe I flatter myself but there are a lot of genres that I can handle. But there are also a lot that I know I cannot. I like poetry but if I try to write about it, it will be anything but poetic. Give me a book about finance or economics and it is going to go right over my head.
Writing a review is about more than critiquing the words on the pages of a book. It is about context and comparison. To review any book without the ability to bring a contextual awareness to the discussion or the ability to frame a commentary by comparison to other works is to judge without sufficient evidence on which to base a judgment. I love John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, for example, but I never appreciated it fully until I had visited Monterey and Salinas. Without the backdrop of my experience in Monterey, I would never really be able to see the story in my mind’s eye. Obviously, we cannot experience everything that we read but we need some frame of common reference to get behind the words and to a shared experience with the writer.
After considering what I want to read and what I really feel qualified and sufficiently unbiased to read, sometimes, my decision-making is based on pragmatism. I have several rather lengthy volumes on the Pacific Theater during World War II that now form a major part of my Pile O’ Books. That is not surprising as publishers are keen to cash in on HBO’s excellent mini-series The Pacific (which, by the way, is one of the rare television programs that is worthy of viewing by the literary-minded). One of the books that really has captured my interest is Robert Leckie’s Strong Men Armed. Although Leckie died in 2001, his books remain in print and Strong Men Armed was republished to coincide with the HBO series. Leckie is one of the main characters in The Pacific and one of the great writers of military history but I still have not picked up Strong Men Armed. Why? The book has not called to me yet.
It happens. There is an exciting moment when a book reaches out to me and says, “It’s time, David. You need to read me next.” It is a moment not unlike the moment my now-wife first spoke to me and I knew that someday I would marry her. Of course, the first time my wife spoke to me represents a magnitude of wonder far greater than any book can provide to me, but the initial spark between a bibliophile and a book is very much like that initial spark between two people who have instantly connected at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level. That is why it is so difficult for me to give up on a book—I have too much emotional energy invested in it. It is also why it is difficult for me to put down a book that has captured my interest—when you have found a good book, it is like being on a honeymoon and that focus, that interest, that love, is a wonderful thing!
Books mentioned in this column:
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.