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Reading vs Reviewing

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , on December 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It never really struck me until Saturday, when I sat down to read a book simply for the hell of it, that the acts of reading and reviewing are distinctly different. It may be self-evident to some out there, but whenever I reviewed a book I always considered it just another form of reading, albeit a little more involved in the sense of paying more attention to moods, nuances and plots etc., etc. However, reading the book on Saturday, I realised, with a little shock perhaps, that rather than analysing it as I normally do, I just let the whole thing seep into me on an emotional level, enjoying the flow of words and images. After I’d finished it, it dawned on me that I had truly enjoyed reading it on a different level than when I review something.

I still have a lingering distaste for the kind of thing that I used to have to do when I was a sixth-former, studying texts for A-level English. Picking everything apart line-by-line and word-by-word does nothing for me except put me off the book/poem/play in question. I’ve come to realise that a great book (or even a good one) very often doesn’t depend on the particular use  of a particular word or phrase but on the storytelling, how immersed one gets into it and how it all lingers on in the memory after the final word has been read. It’s all about empathy and attachment, and how much the book enables us to invest in it. Merely picking it apart only renders the whole thing impotent in my eyes.

Although reviewing is a form of literary criticism and analysis, I tend to step back from breaking a book down into its constituent parts, instead hovering somewhere between serious textual analysis and just plain old reading. In the middle air I inhabit as a reviewer, I can see the general sweep of what the author’s trying to say while also being allowed to pick up use of language, strength of characterisation, integration of plotlines, use of mood, place and nuance to tell the story, without at the same time squeezing it dry of enjoyment.

Reading, however, is just another way appreciating a book but at a greater distance – one can certainly marvel at an author’s facility at invoking empathy and emotion but without necessarily having to witness the mechanisms by which the writer has achieved his effects. For me, at least, that’s the crucial difference between the two actions – reviewing entails inspecting the behind-the-scenes machinery, so to speak, to see how it’s all done without taking it all apart. The best analogy I can currently think of  is that it’s like looking at a Ferrari or Lamborghini: reading is looking at the flowing lines and inherent classiness and beauty of the car, and reviewing is actually looking under the bonnet to see what propels the thing along. Literary criticism is actually taking the engine out and taking it to pieces to see how all the elements relate to one another.

One can appreciate a book on all levels, even abstrusely critical – it’s just a simple matter of how much you want to know before it all loses its wonder. I’m sure that delving into the basic particles of a text does for some people what looking at the quantum level of reality does for a physicist, but for me it would destroy the finely woven tapestry of words the author has woven. It’s often occurred to me as well just how conscious is a writer’s use of certain words at certain junctures, for instance? The very fact that he/she is a writer means that, like a  circus acrobat, they’ve been at it so long that the art comes naturally to them. They may not even be aware that they wrote that sentence the way they did with any particular reason – it just sounded better that way, In any case, more often than not, it’s mere interpretation on the part of the critic/reader. It’s the spectator who invests a work with meaning, because, unobserved, it’s just a collection of words or pictures.

Reviewing has also fed into my appreciation of reading. Whilst deliberately shying away from investigating the deeper mechanics of a story, I can still be aware of the way in which the writer has crafted his story and the way in which he/she has told it. Both activities have also given me an insight into how I can improve my own writing – in other words, what works particularly well and what doesn’t, how stories are meant to flow, what makes a good story and what doesn’t. It’s an endlessly fascinating process – in some ways, there are no definite boundaries where one ends and the other begins, and they both feed into each other like a Moebius strip. Plus, like I said above, they also feed into writing, and can sometimes be a better teacher than any amount of tuition by a tutor.

So, maybe those English Literature A-level classes were useful after all…..  =)