“This Book Will Part Your Hair” Some Reflections on the Current Climate and Practice of Book Reviewing

(c) Copyright 2013, Margaret Langstaff

All Rights Reserved


I’ve been at the writing game many years and have published several books along the way. Early on I used to agonize over reviews and reader comments and tie myself up in knots over whether or not readers enjoyed my books or “got” them. But, as time passed, I realized that no writer pleases everyone and that, in fact, I never set out to receive universal acclaim, but only the respect and recognition of an audience who enjoyed and appreciated books similar to those I myself found noteworthy and good.

I’ve been fortunate as a writer to generally receive quite favorable reviews from my intended audience, and to that I attribute hard work, study of my craft and my lifelong voracious reading (most especially wide and deep reading of the best books in the western canon).

Reviews and reviewers come and go, but writers worth their salt, writers committed to writing, go on writing whatever the critical reaction to their work because they have to, regardless of reviews and sales. I still look at reviews of my books, but with less concern than I did long ago as a rookie, and as for sales–well, only the naive think they will make a killing and become a household name as an author.

Parallel to my writing of my own books I have for over twenty years written serious book reviews for national media as well as many “reviews” on Goodreads and elsewhere online. I am a member, in fact, of some few national professional book review organizations.

There is, I believe, a responsibility anyone who loves books has to join the larger discussion of books and reading, to enter into the larger community of the dialogue about literature, or what Henry James, D. H. Lawrence et al called “the bright book of life.” For literature, to be literature, must enhance, enlarge, explain and explore life in all its wonders and dimensions. When a book hits this mark it becomes timeless and a lasting gift to generations of readers the author of the book will never know. Think of Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice and you will understand what I mean.

What prompted this rather diffuse and rambling train of thought, and the reason I wanted to share it, was a comment I received online for one of my recent books that began, “This book will part your hair.” What a figure of speech, I thought, how arresting. The review was over the top, very favorable, and it made my heart sing because clearly I had connected with someone in the bulls-eye of my “target” audience. Moreover, it gave me a larger sense of satisfaction in that this reader thought enough of the book–and books in the larger sense of the word–to take the time, wholly unbidden, in a busy frantic world, to write a thoughtful signed review.

I suppose my point here is that people who care about books (and the writers who write them) and reading must do what they can to keep the best of it alive and flourishing, must sound off about books they enjoy–and so many don’t despite enjoying certain new books immensely– and must take the time to truly contribute something meaningful and helpful to the ongoing conversation about literature, “the bright book of life, if literature and the life of the mind are to survive. All too often these days anonymous mean-spirited personalities online poison the communal discussion about books and reading and drown out more thoughtful elevated conversation, drive it from the field.

We must not let that happen.

If every one of us who care about books and reading made it a point to write a few words somewhere (Goodreads is great place, of course, to do this, as are the many online book retailing sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble) about new books he/she read and found worthy and remarkable, this would be much less of a bother and would make the world a safer place for books, readers and authors, and I think that would be a very good thing for all of us.

What do you say?


About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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