For example, last year, Reading Lolita in Tehran gave me a compulsion to re-read The Great Gatsby. Then The Fortress of Solitude made me want to read the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. I re-read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Vanity Fair (both books I love) after seeing them reviewed on other people's 50 Books sites. Prodigal Summer and Hollywood Wives and Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul were all "found" reads that I picked up at people's houses or cabins on vacations when I'd run out of other reading material. I read the entire Little House on the Prairie box set in a series of late nights, when young Master Sam was first sprouting teeth and I needed books with large print that I could read by the nightlight. I read Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons after Hurricane Katrina because I wanted to read about New Orleans the way it never will be again. I read the latest Harry Potter book because I was confused and thought I was required to by law.
So take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt. Here's a shortlist of books I'd really like to get to this year (in random order):
- Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
- Runaway by Alice Munro
- In Cold Blood and The Complete Stories of Truman Capote by Truman Capote
- Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett
- Kitchen Confidential and Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
- The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
- The Darling by Russell Banks
- The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
- Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
- The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
And I hate to tell you, I may have to also re-read Kerouac's Dharma Bums. Can I help it if he writes about hiking and camping in such an evocative way? Why must you judge me? Can't we all be brothers?
And goddammit, I'm going to get my mitts on copies of Elizabeth Enright's kids' books Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two (both are out of print for some stupid reason), even if it kills me. I own The Saturdays and The Four-Storey Mistake, and every time I read them (consecutively, natch), the lack of closure makes me go mental.
I haven't just been thinking about the books I'm hoping to read. I've also given some thought to how I'll write about them here. It's occurred to me more than once that, as book reviewers go, I probably leave a fair bit to be desired. I'm naval-gazing, self-reflective, and solipsistic as all get-out. (These are my fancy ways of saying I talk about my baby too much.)
But, you see, here's the problem I have with "mainstream" book reviews:
Because they appear on the printed page alongside articles about world events and local news, book reviews have somehow got it in their head that they are pieces of journalism. As such, writers of book reviews dwell in sensory deprivation tanks where their analysis of each book they read can percolate in a bubble of hermetically sealed objectivity.
Now, out here in the real world where a few of us live, books are read under slightly different conditions: while standing on buses, in hurried snatches in doctors' waiting rooms, while waiting anxiously for a phone call after a job interview, on beaches with a glass of sangria wedged firmly in the sand next to your towel, blurry-eyed by the light of the nightlight while rocking a teething baby.
Books are also obtained in different circumstances that affect our emotional response to them: as gifts from beloved friends or pass-alongs from hated co-workers, as found objects in rental cabins, in the mail from the bloody book of the month club you keep forgetting to cancel, in the bowels of a used bookstore after years of searching.
There are a thousand other factors that make our experience of a book highly subjective: a dislike of certain authors and genres, a tactile distaste for hardcovers or for paperbacks, an irrational prejudice against a character because they share a name with someone you loathe, and even -- yes, it's true -- a visceral reaction to a book's cover.
So why, then, the pretense of objectivity, a pretense that's all the more ironic and unnecessary given that book lovers are the first people you can rely on to appreciate and understand -- and enjoy -- the environmental and emotional factors that colour your experience with a book?
Here's another thing about so-called book reviews: why is it so damn hard for reviewers just to come out and say if the book was good or not? Really, isn't that kind of the point of a book review? I don't need to read an essay that proves how clever you are. I just want to read enough of your writing to know if you're clever enough to trust with my next reading decision, then give me a yay or nay. Is that so hard? It seems like too many book reviewers are writing for the benefit of other book reviewers, or for publishers, or for some imaginary English prof who haunts their laptop. Somehow, the actual readers get lost in the crowd.
Back when I was an undergrad studying English literature, I learned how to write appropriately impersonal, academically correct essays providing "critical analyses" of "texts." These days, I prefer to write my thoughts about books. And I'm thrilled to reclaim personal pronouns to do so.
When I started this site, I didn't consciously set out to give it a certain "voice." I just wanted to write in a way that felt honest and true to me. I wanted to say, Yes, I loved this book, or No, that book sucked rocks, or I think this may be a good book but it came to me at the wrong time and place. I wanted to think aloud about how my context affects how I feel about what I'm reading. And I wanted to flip it around and think about how what I'm reading colours how I look at the world.
I think about reading a lot. Not just books, but the act of reading. I may occasionally come off as flip on these pages, but I take reading very seriously. And at the same time I think that reading is one of the funnest things I can imagine doing. Really, what an amazing gift we all share, when you think about it: the ability to read simple words on a page and use them to make complex moving pictures in our heads. And then we can go out and find like-minded people and compare our head-pictures with their head-pictures and blow each other's minds. Isn't that totally un-fucking-believable?
So, you know, I'm going to keep on reading in the haphazard way that my life affords, and I'm going to keep writing about it in my own extremely un-objective way, and if I can give you a few laughs and solid book recommendations along the way, I'll be pretty content. And that's as close to a new year's resolution as you're ever likely to hear me make.