To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

The Secret Life of a Bookmark

What happens when you place a bookmark between the pages of a book? Surely the answer is that it waits faithfully for your return, at the place you left it, ready to indicate to you the page at which you should resume your reading. But does it?

Despite appearances to the contrary, a bookmark left in a book is not stationary, but in fact is moving closer to the front with each passing day, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Furthermore, the greater the complexity and depth of the fictional universe, the more complex the narrative and more numerous the characters, the faster does this invisible journey occur, as the previously-read facts slip from our memory. Take this to its conclusion, and if you leave the bookmark alone for long enough, then there’ll be nothing for it but to restart reading from the very beginning of book.

It must have happened to us all, the physical corpus of the bookmark remained exactly where you left it, but when you opened the book at the indicated position, everything printed there seemed foreign and unfamiliar. It’s as if on selecting the bookmark you create a secondary and shared consciousness that exists between you and it. The bookmark, previously inanimate, is now animated by this communal soul, and it’s this spirit that is really marking your progress through the book. Perhaps it’s a three-way split, a biblio-trinity of you, the bookmark and the front cover, which cover exerts an irresistible pull over the the bookmark and inexorably drags it forward.

Given the depth of this relationship that we form – one which forges a spiritual bond with us, becoming nothing less than a surrogate for memory, our emissary in the world of the novel – it is strange that we often show remarkably little care when choosing it: a recent receipt from the supermarket, a used train ticket, a postcard received just that morning. Occasionally we might deign to use a beautiful piece of leather expressly designed for the task, such as this Medieval owl design from the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Medieval owl bookmark

Medieval owl bookmark from the Bodleian Library shop, Oxford

This is the usual way of things then, and in spite of our haphazard selection, it always seems to turn out fine. Return to the book frequently enough, and it will have slipped back only a few words, a paragraph at most. Within this margin of error, the bookmark has behaved as expected. More or less.

If we allow, however, the possibility of this reverse motion, what’s to say it can’t go the other way? It certainly seems like it’s a necessary corollary. If so, how? Under what circumstances could this happen?

Imagine now, that class of books that are essentially plot-driven rehashes of already extant novels, the trashy thrillers, crime or romance novels of the world. In any given sentence there will be no revelatory prose that’s worth reading for it’s own sake as a piece of miniature poetry, the characters are carbon copies of others we have already encountered, and the book could almost be reduced to a précis of the plot. For such a book, any discussions you might happen to hear that reveal the plot developments would be transmitted to the bookmark, any reviews you read, cultural references, parodies, affectionate or otherwise, would increase yours and the bookmark’s knowledge of the book. In response, the bookmark would begin to inch its way toward the back of the book. Hear enough, and you won’t have to actually read a single word.

In Italo Calvino’s categorisation, humorously outlined in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, these would be the Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written or Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

So, the next time you’re reading a novel – perhaps whilst sitting in bed and you happen to notice that it’s late and therefore time to go to sleep – and you gently insert a bookmark and put the book to one side, just remember that while you might be sleeping, the bookmark isn’t, and is instead diligently making its way back to the front. Where it stops when you wake, is a secret between the two of you.