Spreading the Love: Book Reviews, Good and Bad

I've received a number of emails and comments lately, with various undertones of censure, stating that I only write good reviews. "" is the implied question.
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I've received a number of emails and comments lately, with various undertones of censure, stating that I only write good reviews. "Don't you have anything bad to say?" is the implied question. Sure, I have plenty bad to say. But when it comes to books, I write reviews of books I've liked. I wasn't always such a reviewer: during my year of reading and reviewing a book a day, I wrote some negative reviews. But in my book about my year (and my life) of reading, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, I don't dwell on the books that sucked me in with great beginnings but then imprisoned me in their badness (having committed to reading a book a day, I couldn't turn around mid-day and find a new book so if I was in for a few chapters, I was in until the end). But the bad books were far and few between. Why? Because I took my time choosing my books, and part of my choosing process was looking to recommendations. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, I write about the well-chosen books that made me so happy to be sitting down reading, even as laundry piled up and kids banged on pans and cats shed (and worse) on the furniture. Now that I am reading one or two books a week, I don't review everything I read. I write reviews of what I've liked. I don't write good reviews: I write reviews of good books.

In her collection of essays entitled Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith writes with a bit of disdain about E.M. Forster. I loved Forster before reading Smith's essay and I love him even more now. I identify with his aesthetics: "A book which doesn't leave people happier or better than it found them, which doesn't add some permanent treasure to the world, isn't worth doing..." How to define "treasure" or, for that matter, what makes someone "better than" before? In my mind there is no doubt that reading is a treasure, and that lots of people reading is bound to make the world a better place. So how to create more readers? By doing what Forster himself did on his wartime BBC radio broadcasts about books: recommend great books and good ones, and encourage people to read them.

If I were being paid to review a set list of books or being held hostage to reviews ("Review Swamplandia! by tonight or no soup for you!"), I would write more negative or mixed reviews ("the writing in Swamplandia! is gorgeous but the point of the story gets lost in the acres of saw grass and the hugely yawning gape of Leviathan": soup please?). But I am not being paid and I am hostage only to my own book addiction. And so I pass on recommendations of great books.

Great good comes from reading great books. The opposite -- bad stuff comes from reading bad books -- is not true. Partly because there are few truly bad books; most books have an audience somewhere who are pleased and comforted and transported by the words contained within. But also because your soul won't shrivel from reading drivel and your brain won't explode from reading crap. But why waste your time reading such tomes? And why should I waste my time reviewing them? If there is a specific book you'd like an opinion on, I'll give it to you. Readers email me all the time not only with recommendations, which I covet, but also with questions, which I answer.

I love to read. And I know that everyone would love to read as much as I do if they read the great books I read. And I believe that love of reading spreads, recommendation to recommendation. So I write my reviews of good books and I dream of a world bursting with voracious, enthusiastic book readers. Such a world just might be the greatest good that comes from reading great books.

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