Confessions of an Unread Book Reviewer

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By Jim Reed

As a reviewer, it’s hard not to cheat.

Some publisher or hopeful author sends me a package of material, including a book, and hopes that something within that package will inspire me to write a review.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

Said publisher or author hopes that I’ll write a favorable review, something that will inspire readers to rush out and purchase the book.

That’s not quite true, either.

Often, said publisher or author wants me to say something that makes people — whether or not they are readers — rush out and purchase the book.

That, too, may not be the whole truth and nuttin’ but.

Said publisher and author would be happy (mostly) if the book became a million-seller, even if nobody read it!

Non-readers often buy books to give to people who accept them but never get around to reading them. Nothing sadder than a stack of unread books.

This is nothing new.

In my rare book emporium in Birmingham, Alabama, I have lots of century-old books that have never been read. The proof is irrefutable. The unread volumes are full of uncut pages — pages that the publisher has failed to trim so that the book can be fully opened.

These unread books are a joy, because it’s fun to take a bone letter-opener and slit each page open as the book is read. It’s a nice romantic notion, the notion that this author’s book lay there for a century before anybody took the trouble to open it. And I am the first to read it!

Anyhow, as I say, it’s hard to refrain from cheating when I receive a book to review.

First of all, it may come into my hands because my editor has heard great things about it, or because the author has been annoyingly persistent (this often works, fellow authors!) and I feel I have to review it just to be freed of this person, or the book may be by someone the literary world has deemed godlike — the writer who is good, therefore, everything written by said writer has to be good and don’t you the reviewer be the one to think differently! And so on.

There are other factors that can influence the unwary reviewer. If you’re in a hurry, you’re tempted to skim the book or just read the jacket or the blurbs or the extensive synopses accompanying the book. Truth is, these synopses are designed to help the lazy reviewer get the job done, or to make sure the reviewer doesn’t miss the point of the book. Heaven forfend, the reviewer should find great meaning in the book that nobody else, including the author, has found!

So, the reviewer has choices. Read the book cover to cover without looking at the cover or the jacket or other reviews or synopses or blurbs, without regard to reputation and track record and age and sex and background.

This is almost impossible to do, so most reviewers don’t do it. But it can be done, fellow reviewer, just in case you are tempted to try it.

Try walking blindfolded up to a table of books-to-be-reviewed, pick the first one your hand touches. Have someone remove the jacket, tape over the title and author information. Then, for once in your life, read a book about which you have no pre-conceived notions.

What do you think would happen?

There are all kinds of possibilities: you might pan a book everybody else loves (your social life will be diminished), you might make inappropriate assumptions about the author (female, male, old, young, experienced, unknown?), you might mistake fiction for autobiography, you might lose a friend (Yipes! I just trashed a book written by someone whose company I cherish!), or, for once in your career, you just might write a review of great integrity, freshness, insight and importance.

You might start a trend.

Probably not.

Jim Reed is a writer, book reviewer and owner of Reed Books in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, also known as The Museum of Fond Memories.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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