BOOKS ARE NOT PRODUCTS: Reflections on Reading Bad Reviews of Classic Books On-Line

I recently confronted someone on one of these endless book review sites (Goodreads, etc.) who gave Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a 1-star review.  The review consisted of little more than an expression of annoyance that she had even picked up the book; it was boring, it had no interesting characters, and worse still, it wasn’t even scary!  She dismissed it with a one-star review and warned others not to bother with it, since she had no idea why people considered it a classic.  I asked her if she didn’t think it was a bit harsh to give a book that had survived well over a century and was beloved by millions (and had created a cultural myth that had given rise to countless copycats, such as The Hulk) a mere one-star.  The reviewer hotly responded that it was “her right” to give the book one-star, and that “you can’t censor my reviews!”  She went on to say that “I hardly think I’m going to hurt Stevenson’s book sales, so what does it matter?”  Clearly, my “attack” on her (as she called it) was based more on capitalism than aesthetics: once assured that his books would continue to sell, and make money for his estate, I should rest easy and withdraw my petty scruples about damaging the book’s reputation.  Isn’t it all about money, after all?  Clearly that’s what pissed her off so much...that she had spent, what, a few bucks for the book (or the e-book) of the novel only to be so bitterly disappointed?

This experience made me think about something that has become a cornerstone of the modern book-reading boom on the internet, the book review.  It also led me to a much darker we read books today simply to review them?  In our tweeting, selfie, Instragram celebrity world, is there such a thing as reading a book simply to read it?  In other words, can you really read a book if the whole world doesn’t know?  And has the reading of a book become another avenue for self-promotion, a way to display your literary taste—or take revenge at a “product” that didn’t meet your expectations?  

Truly, book reviews are nothing new, and the stereotypical ‘bad review’ goes back to the Greeks, if not beyond.  But something changed with the rise of Amazon, Booklikes, and their ilk: on the whole, books are no longer reviewed as books—that is, works of art, literature, thought, expression.  Books are reviewed as products.  I say this because reviewers have to rate the product according to a star system, which is then broken down and averaged for the consumer.  The more positive reviews you receive, the more Amazon will promote a book—it is a “good” product, a marketable one.  The same goes for other book review/promotion sites: you need a minimum of, say, 20 reviews with a 4.5 star average.  Why in the world would this matter to any sensible book reader?  Clearly, because books are seen as vacuum cleaners or hair care products: they either work or they don’t.  Will they make me look beautiful?  Are all the important people using it?  Is the product just like all the other products I use?  Will it really get my carpet/mind clean?
Also, people are reading books voraciously—indeed, they are “consuming” them the way we consume potato chips or ice cream.  There doesn’t seem to be much thought or meditation on the book itself; like popcorn, it’s something you mindlessly toss into your mouth while you watch TV.  Goodreads fosters this attitude by trumpeting Reading Goals for each year, trying to encourage people to read 50, 100, or even 150 books a year.  This sounds laudable, even miraculous, until you realize that people are largely reading the “junk food” of books, which can be read in an afternoon, reviewed (for caloric content, perhaps), and tossed aside for the next binge.   Even worse, there’s nothing altruistic or educational going on here: Goodreads wants you to read more so you can review more so more people will buy the books the site promotes (and these books’ agents and authors are paying Goodreads to promote these books, etc).  In short, it’s a business, plain and simple, though it masquerades as a club for “book nerds” and lovers of literature in all stamps.  Without money and star reviews, Goodreads (and Amazon) has no more sense of what makes a good book than I can read hieroglyphics. 

First things first: a book is not a product.  Not that it can’t be, obviously, but it goes against the grain of what a book should be.  A book is a vessel, containing the ideas, thoughts, and peculiarities of an author and a culture.  For this very reason a book is immortal.  I don’t mean that a good book lasts forever because of its ideas; any book lasts forever because it can be picked up and read decades or centuries later and it speaks in the unique voice of former times—those people live and breathe on the page, no matter how good or bad the book.  So how can something with the ability to defy time and resurrect the dead be viewed and sold as a product: something disposable, replaceable, and with a limited shelf life?  This is how books are sold to the consumer of the 21st century: as part of a literary “diet,” to be supplemented with other books from the same genre (food family?) and followed religiously, the way you might follow the Atkins diet or avoid carbs.  On Amazon, whenever you click on a book, it suggests several other books you might be interested in.  Nothing wrong with this, since it might open up your horizons to similar books/authors and start a real conversation of reading.  Or, more negatively, it might narrow your field of vision, keeping you within a strict genre of reading (which could last a lifetime, since genres are glutted with endless books, each a variation on the same theme). 

If we read books like products, we simply go from one to the next, without letting the book speak to us or possibly transform us.  We also tend not to ask questions of the book itself, assuming that a book is either “bad” or “good,” “slow” or “fast,” “boring” or “interesting.”  Whenever I read a book I don’t like, or have trouble understanding, I first look at myself.  What is preventing me from breaking into the language or ideas of the book?  Often, it’s quite personal: either I’m not in the mood for the book, or I have never been exposed to this style of writing, or the subject matter is challenging, or it’s opening a door to a world I hesitate (for whatever reason) walking into.  Rarely, very rarely, do I find the book itself at fault.  Even more importantly, many books I wasn’t ready for at one time I later found myself quite receptive to, even in love with.  Books are timeless: they don’t have to hit you when you’re 18, or 28, or 38—maybe you don’t get a book until you’re 88!  In short, a book isn’t written for you, to order; it’s written for life itself, to be experienced whenever by whomever.  However, it’s not a product packaged for mass consumption, meaning that anyone, at any experience level, can simply lap it up.  Reading takes time, it takes maturity, it takes intellectual and emotional rigor.  Not everyone is a good reader.  It takes work.  Unfortunately, we have a publishing industry that wants all books to read the same, to contain language and ideas that anyone—meaning someone who doesn’t read—can pick up and follow without an intellectual hiccup.  Instead of timeless, they want immediate literature: consume now and dispose later.  We’ll make more. 

This leads me back to Stevenson.  The reviewer in question, based on her profile, has been raised with a steady diet of Young Adult books.  Nothing wrong with that, except in its sheer exclusivity.  If you shape your world with a single genre, that genre becomes reality.  A book that doesn’t share this aesthetic it seen as bizarre, misshapen, and often, quite dull.  As much as I admire some YA books, many are tiresome and formulaic, written for mass consumption to capitalize on the latest “craze.”  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the main character, Catherine, reads obsessively in a similar genre—Gothic fiction.  Now Austen enjoyed Gothic fiction herself, so her aim wasn’t to satirize the entire genre.  Rather, she satirized Catherine’s inability to read or appreciate anything else.  And sure enough, when Catherine accepted an invitation to stay at General Tilney’s estate at Northanger Abbey, she imagines herself to be a Gothic heroine venturing into a forbidding chapel full of ghosts and tortured maidens.  The genre shaped her reality to an absurd point, making it difficult for her to read her surroundings—and more importantly, the people who are trying to manipulate her for their own ends.  This reviewer reminded me of Catherine: she expected Stevenson to write a YA novel, and when he “failed,” she let the world know.  Her review lacked anything critical or engaging, much less any moments of true self-reflection which should be the basis of any conscientious review.  Instead, we got a literary “selfie,” as she posed defiantly with the book and made what to her were witty put-downs.  Take that, Robert Louis Stevenson—I’ve unmasked you for the ages!  You’re a fraud and you’re boring to boot!  I’ll never forgive you for interrupting my reading of Wings of Dead Angels, Book 7: Dreadful Revelation!

This is a relatively new trend among book reviews: the shattering of the “great” idols.  Every day I come across a teenager (though quite as often, a seasoned adult) who reads some great novel for the first time and it outraged.  I don’t use the word loosely—truly, you can read ire in every sentence.  In the past month or so, I’ve seen a half-star review of War and Peace, a 2.5 star review of Northanger Abbey (fittingly!), and many 1-2 star reviews of various Shakespeare plays.  In each one, you get the same sense of anger, curt dismissal, and mocking laughter.  “Shakespeare just isn’t funny, and I’m not afraid to say so!” one of the reviewers said (a paraphrase).  Why does a “bad” book make us angry?  Just stop reading it and pick up another one.  I would never write a bad book review for the simple reason that I don’t care.  If I don’t like a book enough to finish it, why the hell should I review it?  Sure, people say, “I want to help others so they don’t waste their time.”  I don’t buy it.  I get the sense that some reviewers long to read ‘bad’ books for that all-important selfie that comes at the end: the reviewer thumbing his/her nose at it. 

Even I have found myself reading a book and considering how to write the review, what passages to highlight.  That’s a dangerous way to read a book, since it focuses the experience on you rather the book itself.  Better by far to try to write your own book in that case!  Let the book be itself, and if you’re not ready for it, set it aside.  No need to air your dirty laundry.  If the book stinks in your opinion, all well and good.  But remember, millions of people throughout the world have fallen in love with Shakespeare, for example.  They find great meaning and power in his works, and many countries have used his plays as metaphors for their own political situation.  Shakespeare has stood for freedom, for power, for the divine, for the earthly.  He’s led people to truth; he’s inspired other great authors to find themselves (think about how many book titles alone quote Shakespeare)!  Are you really more insightful than they are?

In the end it all comes down to humility.  Place your review in the bigger picture and ask yourself, “why do I need to write this?  What good does it do?  Am I really adding to the literary conversation of this work or simply taking a selfie?”  Many will ask, what harm does it do?  Why can’t I say what I feel?  Don’t we live in a free country?  Sure we do, but consider this: let’s say you write a terrible, smarmy review of Stevenson and post it on line.  Suppose you have a bunch of followers, other young, impressionable readers who are reluctant to read a book without guidance.  One of these readers will see your review and become dogmatic about the book: “oh, I hate that book, it sucks!  It’s boring!” even though they have never read it (I’ve seen this happen so many times as a teacher).  But what if that book would transform them?  What if they were meant to read it?  It might take years for the reader to grow up enough to try the book themselves, or they might never read it.  So your review, written because you “felt like it” has just closed the door of possibility and imagination.  Was really it worth it?  Why not let people read it for themselves?  It’s really not a question of money; with all the crap we waste money on these days, a book costs very little and ideas are never a waste of money. 

I write this because I refuse to see books as products.  They don’t disappoint, they inspire.  And if they don’t inspire you, that doesn’t mean the book didn’t “work.”  You’re simply not ready for it.  And okay, you might never be.  But you’re not the world.  The world is vast, people are diverse.  Let a book speak for itself, even if it doesn’t speak to you.  Young people need to read as indiscriminately as they can, otherwise they fall into the trap of genre and, like Catherine, expect to see ghosts emerging from every cupboard.  In short, reading is the most engaging, and possibly the healthiest thing you can do for your mind.  So don’t limit the greatest literature of the past to others.  Or better yet, assume that you have more to learn from a book 100 years old than it does from you.