A friend of mine gave me a book to read.
“You,” she said, “are going to love this book. It was funny! It was sad! And I loved all the characters.”
She told me the premise, and she outlined the plot. She couldn’t wait for me to read it so we could talk.
It seems to me a kind of sacred trust when someone places a book in my hands, so I cleared the decks, and then I read that book.
And I really, really did not like it.
I collected some things to say about that book–striking quotes and quirky things about the characters, and when I returned the book, we had a great conversation. And I realized that some of the things that happened in the book parallel things that are happening in my friend’s life.
It makes sense; I get it. That’s why the spoke spoke to her so strongly—and maybe why it passed me by completely.
All of this made me think about how we can write about books.
There’s a place, I think, for the academic approach–for a discussion of plot, character, theme, and setting. And there’s the challenge of defining style, the way a wordsmith tosses words out on to the page, distinctively, a different sort of tossing than any other writer can attain. There’s the quest to identify symbols and meaning.
All of those are English teacher-y joys, book-geek occupations. Not everyone loves those discussions, and even if they do, the discussions don’t mean the person who reads them will also enjoy the book.
And it’s such a personal thing: we loved a book, it made a difference in our lives. We want our friends and dear ones to love it too.
So I’m thinking we need to write about the things in the book that connected….and write about the things going on in our lives that the book connects to.
I retired in August. Not long after, a new friend from the blogosphere recommended a book by Dorothy Gillman, a mystery writer. The book was called A New Kind of Country, and it was Gillman’s memoir about moving to Nova Scotia when she was just about my age, and when her youngest son stepped out into adult independence. I dug up a copy of the book, which was written in 1978, and I read it.
It resonated because of the similarities between my stage of life right now and Gillman’s when she wrote it.
It fascinated because of the differences.
And it made me think there are some universal themes about this age and stage–nests that empty, parents who are aging, defining ourselves when the formal, official work life is over. Relationships and physical changes. How we decide what it is, in these latter years, what we call home.
So Gillman’s book enthralled me, and I started a quest to find other books by women of a certain age, and to see if the universal themes ring through their work.
Those books call to me because I speak the language, walk the same walk.
What books, right now, call to you?
My son, a young adult with autism, loves the work of Stephen King. He enjoys the thrill of the horribly fantastic. He resonates, too, I think, with a recurring theme of ‘outsiderhood’ in King’s work.
My mother-in-law, widowed two years ago, devours romance novels. The love stories there fill a kind of void in her own life; she replaces her missing hero with a fictional one, and she is drawn in and delighted.
I would not enjoy most of Stephen King’s fiction (although I loved his nonfiction book, On Writing.) I don’t care too much for most romance novels. I do, though, love murder mysteries–me, the biggest pacifist you’ll ever meet. If I were to write about those mysteries, I’d need, I think, to explore why they speak to me so. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing villainous skunks unmasked and brought to justice. Maybe there are other things in those stories that meld with the nerve endings in my mind.
Whatever it is, I could recommend Louise Penny or Anne Cleeves work to you, and you might like her work. Or, you might not.
They say you can’t step in the same river twice. Along those same lines, I don’t think two people ever read the same book.
So in writing about books, I think we also have to write about ourselves. We need to talk about the characters, sure, and the reader needs to know at least a fundamental plot outline. It’s good to say when and where the book takes place, and what we like about the book.
But then we need to explore the why, I think–answer the question of why this book speaks to me right now. Unspool that, and share it, and the person who reads your review may say, “Oh, my gosh; that sounds just like me,” or, “I know someone going through exactly the same thing,” or, “I have no idea what that’s about and no desire to learn.”
The reading of a book is a dynamic thing, a shared kind of creation. The writer organizes and puts down thoughts, brings his or her own gifts and knowledge, imagination or research, and presents that composite in a unique and certain way. The reader brings his or her own lived experiences, beliefs, and interests to the work. They sieve the writer’s words through a fine-grained filter as individual as a snowflake.
The experience of reading is different for every single person, and it’s even different for that person, every single time they read the same work.
And when we write about books, I think, our challenge is to define that difference. What does the work say to me, right here and right now? The writer’s words, my filter: what experience do we create together?
If we can capture that in our reviews, we can, maybe, show our readers one of the infinitesimal facets that can be polished by reading that particular work.
What do you want to know when you read a review? What do you want to share when you write one?
Happy blogging, my friends.