Why exactly do we read book reviews?

Image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

 

Bear with me. You might think the answer is bleedin’ obvious, but I’ve been considering how and why I read reviews, and it’s changed how I think about — and write — them.

Are you the one that I want?

Of course, most people read reviews to answer the question, do I want to read this book?  That’s why publishers and retailers put great energy into getting their books reviewed.

As a reader you want a flavour of what the book’s about, enough to decide whether you want to read it, but not so much that it spoils your enjoyment. Reviews are great both for discovering newly published and new-to-you books, and for finding out more about a book which you’ve heard of but haven’t yet committed to reading.

I may not know you, but I can still have an opinion

A long time ago, when I was reviewing for a broadsheet, I was told that a review should tell you enough to enable you to discuss the book at a dinner party without actually having read it. That sounds like simple snobbery, the desire to appear cultured without actually putting in the work, but I think there are good reasons for reading a review of a book you have no intention of reading.

You might want to be aware of popular and/or acclaimed titles, to know where they fit into the wider context of what people are reading, and what they care about. You might want to know how the book influences other writers and trends within that genre.

Or you might have decided you definitely don’t want to read that book, and the review confirms your opinion.

Is it just me or…

Sometimes I finish a book and I’m unsure how I felt about aspects of it, or I thought it was rubbish when the consensus is that it’s great, or vice versa. This is probably the time when I enjoy reviews most. When I’m in the decision phase, I tend to skim nervously, wanting an overview but not wanting my opinion influenced (or spoilers).

Now I can relax and fully absorb what the reviewer is saying. Like most people I have a handful of favourite bloggers and reviewers, so I look to them first. Did they agree with me? Did they see something I missed?

What the hell just happened?

Rather than not knowing how you feel about a book, you might end the book bemused. What was that all about? What was the author trying to say? Or you might have questions about the mechanics of the plot, wondering whether you missed something or the author slipped up.

I’ve noticed that Google searches to my site often have the term ‘[Title of novel] ending’. So it seems this is a common feeling. That’s what led me to start doing occasional spoiler reviews, a safe space to explore what the ending was about with people who have read the book (or that select group of people who prefer to know where a book’s going before they read it).

I can see clearly now

The good thing about reviewing on a blog rather than a publication is that I feel more free to link my thoughts on the book to my own experiences, or thoughts on current events, or other books that reference similar issues.

Reading a review is an opportunity to consider not just whether you like the book, and how the author addressed key themes and ideas, but how you feel about them. The review might highlight things you hadn’t considered, or you might find yourself disagreeing with the reviewer’s take.

It’s often after I’ve finished a book, torn myself away from the lure of story, that these deeper connections become clear. Just as you engage with the book, you also engage with reviews, even if only in your own head, and that brings fresh insights. That, to me, is one of the satisfying things about reading — you’re learning and reflecting without even knowing you’re doing it!

Why do you read reviews? Do you feel like you get what you want from them?

16 Comments

  1. I like to read reviews because I don’t wish to waste money on a book if I might not enjoy it. I like to read the 3* and below ratings first as often you get to the real nitty gritty details about a story. If I don’t mind the issues and the book still interests me I would still buy it.
    Too often too many inflated 5* reviews for a book make me suspicious that the reviews are not all from real readers.

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  2. It’s interesting that this post comes at about the same time when I’ve, to a degree, soured on WRITING reviews. The process has been extremely fulfilling, yet after making dozens of reviews of “this is a middling book”, it feels weary and repetitive. Even if the books themselves were decent enough “51% books” to read, reviewing them just doesn’t seem that exciting anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Agree. I tend to only review books I feel strongly about, unless it’s an ARC and I feel I ‘owe’ the publisher a review. Increasingly, if I don’t feel engaged with the book I won’t even finish it.

    In those cases, if it’s from Netgalley I’ll put a brief note on saying DNF and why, but I don’t tend to put DNF reviews out publicly.

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  4. I read reviews for all the same reasons you’ve described and, like Susan, I subconsciously have a variety of sources that cover off various angles–although I’ve not organized them into lists, or my GR contacts into groups with that in mind. Your post makes me think about a comment that was made in the NYT year-end summary post, about how they sometimes like to run two reviews of the same book (one by a staff writer, one by a freelancer) and one subscriber seemed to question that (referring to an instance in which there were many contradictions) but I actually wish they could do so more often to highlight what a subjective venture it really is!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m often fascinated by how the same book can get such different reviews, even in my own small network. I can’t take credit for the picture, it’s a free Pixabay image. You’ve reminded me to update the page to include a credit (captions used to be problematic with this theme but it seems to work okay now with Gutenberg).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, thank you for saying so: I will check them out. Mostly I use Unsplash, which works well (and instantly as you download the image there’s a clip of code you can use to embed beneath the photo as a credit, which is super convenient). Maybe you’ll like that one as well.

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