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!