Why Review Books?

We’re book bloggers. We write book reviews. And while it might seem like book reviews are easy to write, they’re often more difficult than you’d think. How do you condense your thoughts on an entire novel into a single, 800-word article? How do you describe the book without spoiling major plot points? How do you describe your love (or hate) for a book without devolving into a cluster of “I can’t even…”?

cheerful young woman with red leaf enjoying life and weather while reading book in autumn park

“OMG, there’s a leaf! I just- I just can’t!”  Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Then there’s the question of why we review books in the first place– beyond a basic reason like, ‘the publisher sent me a free copy in exchange for an honest review’. That’s common enough these days that we don’t blink an eye at it, but just as often, I see reviews for books that have been out for years, decades, or even centuries. So why review a book like The Lord of the Rings or Anna Karenina when people have been talking about both for years? Because we want to be part of the conversation. I might not be the first to write about either of those books, but my perspective is unique to me, and so I can add to an ongoing dialogue, even though major literary critics have already made their Grand Opinions known.

Speaking of literary critics…

There’s an assumption that literary criticism is done by high-minded, elite intellectuals writing from their ivory towers and delivering inviolable literary opinions from on high. And sure, you have your Harold Blooms who write like they’re the be-all-end-all of literary criticism, but the truth is that anyone who actively thinks about the books they’re reading is a critic.

This is a good thing. It’s healthy to engage with the things you like. It builds critical thinking skills. And it doesn’t mean that you’ll start to hate the things you previously enjoyed. You can love things and still acknowledge their flaws. Nothing is perfect, and that’s okay. As A.O. Scott writes in his book, Better Living Through Criticism:

“It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.”

We all have the ability to engage with the books we read, to examine our reactions to them, and to figure out why we respond the way we do to one work over another. Writing a review allows us to clarify those thoughts and explain, to ourselves and to others, how the book was successful– or not. Were the characters believable as people, or were they one-note figures who responded to everything the same way? Did the story accomplish its goals? Did the narrative hold up to scrutiny, or was it filled with gaping plot holes? Did the story make you think more deeply about its topics, or was it wholly surface-level? Did you enjoy it? Or did you hate it? Why?

Do we need to do this with every piece of media we consume? Probably not. But having the critical skills needed to examine a book or a movie gives us the ability to form a reasoned opinion and be able to defend that opinion. Why is that important? Here are a few examples:

  • “I know Book A is a ridiculous piece of fluff, but I love it for these reasons”
  • “I know Book B is a cultural touchstone and regarded by many as a Big Important Book, but I didn’t like it, and here’s why”
  • “Author X was offended by a negative review of their book and got their Twitter followers to mob the reviewer, but maybe I should step back and think twice before jumping on Author X’s bandwagon”

Critical reading and reviewing help us, as readers, to clarify our thoughts on a work, express our views on it, and engage with the larger book community about that work. It doesn’t mean we’ll stop enjoying fun things and turn into a dour person who only reads Great Works of Literature. It means that we’ll have a better understanding of our own tastes, and be able to say why we love or hate elements of a certain work.

So who are book reviews meant for?

They’re not for authors.

I know there are a lot of bloggers and vloggers who won’t create negative reviews because they feel it’s disrespectful to the author who worked long and hard on their book. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that notion. An author may have poured their heart into a book but that doesn’t, by default, make it good. Nor does it mean I am required to either enjoy or praise it. Once a book has gone to the publisher for printing, it’s out of the author’s hands. The reading public can think whatever they want about it.

Reviews are for readers. They’re for readers who have a limited amount of time and/or money, and who want to know if that hyped book is really worth it. They’re for readers who want to find other, like-minded people to talk about favorite books with. They’re for readers who want to find out about engaging, new-to-them books they might fall in love with. Whatever your opinion is of a book, a review is a way to begin a conversation about it.

18 thoughts on “Why Review Books?

  1. I’ve tried to write reviews and I just can’t do them justice. And I totally agree….it’s ok to give a negative review. I don’t buy into the notion that someone worked hard on it…that’s convoluted, because if you go out t9 eat and the food is horrible are you supposed to say it’s ok because the chef worked hard on it?

  2. I agree with everything you said specially it’s for readers to help them considering whether to read a book or not. Not everyone has same taste and its important o say what one thinks either positive or negative. I write negative review, I read them, and even after reading negative review I buy or read that book because I know I would like that book. wonderful post!

  3. Wow, this is SUCH an excellent post!! I completely agree with your points. I first started writing book reviews years ago to keep a record of my thoughts on books–before I was on Goodreads I guess–but now there are so many reasons why I write them: to share my thoughts, to practice synthesizing and condensing my thoughts, and to start bookish conversations. ❤

  4. Thanks! Reviews are such a good way of collecting and analyzing thoughts on books. It’s really helped me figure out why I respond the way I do to certain aspects of books and genres. I don’t think I would be reading as much as I do, or what I do if I wasn’t reviewing books for the blog or at least writing about them in my journal. It’s really changed my reading life– for the better!

  5. Well said. Reviews are for readers. I don’t see negative reviews as a bad but that’s probably because I’m one of those who is sometimes motivated to read a book that received a negative review. Sometimes bloggers and other reviewers dig down more into the book when writing a negative review than a positive one, so I know more and find more that there that appeals to me.

  6. Great discussion. This point especially sums it up for me: “Because we want to be part of the conversation”. My goal in book blogging has shifted around over the years (because I want to share my thoughts, because I want to evaluate a book, because I want to be aware of books for my job, etc.), but it always comes back to being part of a conversation.

  7. I love that quote by AO Scott and I have added his book to my TBR because of it. Yes, yes, yes! I think people why away from the word “critic” because they believe it to be negative. Just because you are critical of something, able to objectively explore it, does not mean you need to be negative. Sure, there will be opportunities to improve. But we’re human — literally nothing we do can be perfect. There will always be ways to make these works better.

    Thank you for calling out that book reviews are NOT for the authors. While this might make me a thoughtless blogger, I rarely think of the authors when I’m writing my reviews. I want to share my passions and allow others to find what I found in the text easily. I also want to engage in discourse with others who have read it! Tell me I’m wrong! Show me where I missed key things! Praise an insight that I discovered you missed! This sort of connection over books gives me so much energy. I love it.

  8. I don’t see negative reviews as bad, either. And I think you’re right– reviewers do tend to get more in-depth about a book when they’re writing a negative review. With a positive review, it often seems like they’re just gushing, and not providing details about what was great about the book.

  9. Love it! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I also believe that reviews are NOT for authors. I write reviews both professionally and for books that I read on my own time, and both have taught me valuable skills in writing, speaking, and critical thinking.

    Jasmine | singprettyreadbooks.com

  10. Thanks! Reviewing has definitely helped me improve my critical thinking skills when it comes to books and the book world. I enjoy different books now than I did when I first started writing reviews, but I think they’re of higher quality now, so I’m fine with that.

  11. Pingback: MAY 2020 | Wrap-Up – Nut Free Nerd

  12. I’ve only been writing reviews for the past year or so and I’m enjoying it. I think it has brought a different perspective to my personal reading experience that is outside of the education/entertainment factor. It’s brought me a better understanding of the writing process in what makes a good book and how to critique them as such. And I like giving notice to upcoming publications to help bring exposure to books readers may like. Some may not always agree with what I think is a good/unsavory read, but as long as people are reading that’s all that counts and I hope to bring awareness to more options that are up and coming, that’s the goal!

  13. That’s a good point about critiquing books making you more aware of the writing process. I suppose if you’re picking apart what you liked or didn’t like about a book, it’s going to make you more aware of the story elements that make it up. I always count it as a win if someone picks up a book I recommended– especially if they end up enjoying it– but yes, getting someone to read at all is the main goal, and if a good but lesser-known writer gets more attention, so much the better!

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