This is what I call a review.

I read recently that Amazon, Kindle and the like can see not only when I finish a book but if I finish the book at all, and if I don’t what page I stopped reading on. I shouldn’t be surprised they send me regular emails asking me to review books I’ve read, the most recent was for a book I possibly read a year ago.

I never do reviews or rate what I read on Amazon and I generally don’t bother reading them either. I have often looked at the below line reviews on Amazon and have been left clueless as to whether it is a book I’d enjoy. I don’t know who these people are, if we like the same things and the reviews have no context.

My feeling of that ‘below the line’ zone was summed up beautifully by Alain de Botton in a speech that was shown on ABC’s Big Ideas recently. He talks about the journal and how we use it to vent and share our innermost feelings and then put the journal away. We never show it to anyone, and we shouldn’t. If we did people would think we were screaming psychopaths. The ‘below the line’ zone is the private journal. People simply shouldn’t be sharing these innermost thoughts, but in this cyber world they do, and some of them read like screaming psychopaths.

While reviews are generally not that bad, they are the personal opinion of people I don’t know and without knowing the person I wonder how useful the opinion is. I do, however, enjoy reading reviews from writers I know. Reviewers I’ve come to rely on, whether I agree with them or not. I get a strong sense of whether I’ll enjoy the story. They give me a background and a context for the book or author and they clearly know what they are talking about in terms of story line, character development and the talent of the writer to write a compelling line or two. I do need more from my review than someone’s personal opinion, which could vary depending on the day they are having or the mood they are in.

So, here I segue back to Alain de Botton. In the same speech he talked about how we receive news. He used the example of 261 people in the Congo being killed to show how we as humans need empathy when we hear a story or get news. Just fact isn’t good enough. We need to know the state of place before the incident in the Congo. The ordinary day to day happenings. We are globalised provincials. We have access to information about the world but we don’t know the world. We get information but it’s through fact. We need information presented through the arts, we need empathy in the telling to really understand the event.

While he was talking about news reportage I started thinking about my novel, which I was working on at the time. I started thinking about the story in general and whether I was giving future possible readers room to build empathy for my characters and the plot.

His words resonated with me and have stayed with me over the week. Which brings me to this brilliant review in New York Review of Books about Sybille Bedford. I have not heard of this author but I’m keen to read her now. The review did everything getting news needs to. It talks about the life of Ms Bedford, it showed me where her writing came from and who she was and how all of that informed what she wrote. A brilliant review about a truly fascinating woman. From the New York Review of Books it is

4 thoughts on “This is what I call a review.

  1. Love it and totally agree. I have often tried to summarise why i am not comfortable with all the social media sites out there and you have summarised it beautifully – context and empathy and lack there of! Looking forward to reading more.


    • That is a great column, and sums up the whole online review thing really well. I like the comment about people giving films good reviews because they want to see more, not because the recognise the film is made well. Or a well made film a bad rating because it was not easy watching, despite being well made. I think that nails it. Thanks


  2. My first comment. This is a special moment, and an exciting moment. I had added a link to the talk on the ABC but I’m not sure it’s showing up. Something to work on. I am going to post it now, it’s a great talk. Thank you for being the first to comment.


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