A Principled Rant on Bookstore Reviews

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Most people, I assume, want a review that’s opinionated, insightful, and to the point. They want something to help them decide if a book is worth their precious time and coin. Happily, competent reviewers do exist. I’ve purchased or passed based on their comments many times. But crowded around these virtuous voices is a cacophony of juvenile, irrelevant, and self-absorbed nonsense that exists solely for its own sake! Where are the gatekeepers I ask? Apparently, they fell asleep in the tower, because many a drunken, goggle-eyed gatecrasher has evaded and used the scriptorium as a latrine!

 So before you click submit on that next review, take this as something like a fiery dictum from Heaven, even if you don’t believe in such things. Taken as such, you’ll help push back the chaos by cultivating a meaningful space where all manner of thing will be well, for you, and more importantly, for others. And since Heaven usually shows us our shame before clothing us with virtue, I’ll begin with the big “Don’ts”:

Don’t post a book review if you haven’t read the book! “Hey ya’ll, I just got my book! I haven’t read it yet but . . .” No! Move off stage! “But the cover is so pretty and I can’t wait to . . .” No! Hisssssss! Save your perfunctory posts for social media! Come back when you’ve fulfilled your basic duty to both author and public-after you’ve read the book. Now, exit stage right.

Don’t post a text message instead of a review. “The book looks great!,” or “Can’t wait to read!,” or simply “Thanks!” I know it seems impossible not to respond to everything by incessantly clicking key pads. But resist you must, with all the might of Hercules! Do you want your words to be meaningful, to enrich others? Then save them for your friends because, honestly, in this context, they only contribute to the ever expanding void of words thoughtlessly employed.

Don’t post a review if you only want to fume about a damaged book. “The poems by T. S. Eliot are great, but the book came destroyed! Here, let me post fifty pictures of the damage.” No! This is a shipping issue not an issue with the book as printed. Unless there is some publishing defect like missing pages, shoddy binding, or terrible print, something potential buyers should know, then don’t rant about it in a review. Most vendors have simple return policies for damaged deliveries. Just return it!

Don’t write a personal memoir instead of a review. “O I’ll never forget what this book meant to me that summer at the lake house!” No! What we really want is more about the book and less of your biography. We don’t have a lake house, but we do wonder if we might have a similar experience, even from our narrow apartment above a busy intersection. That is, if we only had more than a memoir and a dozen pictures of you smiling at the lake.

Don’t write a wrangling, esoteric dissertation about some obscure point of the book. “The epistemological key to Dante’s metaphysical assumptions rests below Cocytus’s ninth circle, yada yada.” Please! Folks just want to know if you liked the book and why. Save the pedantic stuff for your book clubs and blogs, those with passwords and finger signs.

Don’t post a review merely to lambast or praise a book’s author. “Marilynne Robinson styles herself as a free thinker, a true liberal, but she’s just a conservative in sheep’s clothing.” Look, most people just want to know if Robinson’s novels capture you or not, if her literary art is worthy of their time and attention, not whether she leans left or right politically. If you’re so concerned about Ms. Robinson’s political leanings, than write her about it, just don’t post it as a review. No one gives a rip!

Don’t post a review merely to dismiss a book with sophomoric snark. So goes one “review” of the Iliad: “I’m Achilles and I’m pissed! Some chump dissed me in front of my crew and now I’ll pout till they suck my boots!” So on and so forth. Ok, Homer isn’t beyond critique. But, until you’ve written your own epic poem that’s fed all of western literature, don’t post something so mockingly dismissive. Save your puerile sarcasm for the truly pissed – your crew- because they had to read something far bigger, in every sense, than their daily diet of texts, tweets, and digital feeds.

If you assume a feline persona and post reviews in cat speak, than I’m at a loss. Hey gatekeepers! The book review box smells; it’s time to take the scat out. 

Now, the path to book review virtue is simple, just think, “Others.” Write something helpful for others. We hopeless bibliophiles just want to know about a book’s content and construction. Tell us whether or not you liked the book’s gooey filling and why. Did you find the book enlightening, delightful, irritating or just plain disgusting; would you canonize it on your shelf or abominate it to the pit of hell? Tell us why with all the color and slant of your personality, and even if we don’t like you or agree with you, your comments will help us make our decision. Then what about the book’s physicality? Specify which edition, by what publisher, since reviews often get jumbled together. Tell us if you liked the book’s material, cover art, page layout, and font. Why or why not?

If you do these things my friend, you’ll have helped someone, and done your part, however small, to rescue the realm from the ever encroaching chaos of goggle-eyed gate crashers.  

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