Years ago, I was a book reviewer. I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve reviewed more than 500 books – mostly in small reviews for Publishers Weekly, but in bigger reviews for various newspapers and mags. And in the course of reviewing, I began to seriously hate like and dislike. It seemed to me that my like and dislike were not really at stake in reviewing a book. True, it was hard to give a “good” review to a book I disliked, and vice versa. Still, I tried to make my reviews struggles with what the books were doing. I tried to make them diagnostic, exploratory, a way of getting a good surgeon’s grasp on the innards of the book. This, I must say, didn’t go down well with editors, who would often send me emails commenting, what did you think of the book? Meaning, did you like it? And usually I had to throw in a few words of praise or dispraise. Mostly, though, I tried to so subordinate the like the like or dislike moment in the review to the more interesting business of, well, thinking of the book, thinking about it, thinking with it, thinking through it.
Thinking with – this is a steal from Levi-Strauss, who spoke of totems as things one “thinks with”. Aids to reflection. Most books are anything but – at least, on the surface. Of the books I reviewed, I remember a few, but most I have so forgotten that I occasionally start a book and think, wait, I reviewed this!
What I didn’t like about the like or dislike game is that, in a sense, it was really not what the reader of the review should want to know. Or at least ultimately. What is interesting in a review is the way the book is handled by someone of reasonable literacy, someone practiced in the art of close reading, if need be, but who know that sometimes, you have to cast largely, let the line reel out. This is much harder to do with novels. The novel that is just published, especially if it is by someone you haven’t read before, comes at you demanding something incredibly bold, since it proposes to hold your interest in events and characters that are made up. This is bold, but, I should say, it is not unusual. It is a rare day in a person’s life if he or she doesn’t either tell a story or hear a story or both. Stories are a large part of our interpersonal, ordinary life. We live together with stories, and we die with the murmur of a story on our lips, or on the lips of those about us. Who then make us into a story. Stories are more fundamental than such ephemera as money. But what distinguishes the novel is that it keeps on, and in writing, and that is a double dare. Whether we like the novel or not, it is hard, mostly, not to respect the sheer damn impudence of it all.
Of course, I read reviews, I see those lists with the best books of the year, and I am moved, sometimes, to read a novel after reading a review in which the reviewer presses the “I like” button – but only if that liking is paid for by some more valuable insight into the book: its language, its personages, its light, its darkness. The blurb culture, which is about reducing our response to a Pavlovian reflex arc (I like/I hate), has, I think, been very bad for novels. The blurb culture is about leveling, and finding just that level of consumer satisfaction that is a degree above numbness. And that is no way to live with a book.