You Have to Read the Book
I think if you’ve read any of my opinion pieces in the past then you’ll notice that I’ve cultivated over the years a somewhat namby pamby style. This consists of the following:
Step One: Ask a bunch of questions.
Step Two: Answer one.
Step Three: Ask a bunch of other questions based on that statement.
Step Four: Answer one.
Step Five: Ask a whole SLEW of questions (possibly contradicting the previous questions).
Step Six: Answer one. Finis!
Well, a person’s got to take a stand on SOMETHING around here. I’ve been weighing in on controversies left and right recently (which is so not like me that I’m going to blame the water here in Evanston). In any case, here goes nothing. Step back, people. I’m gonna actually make a can’t-back-off statement about the state of literary criticism today:
You have to read a book to critique it.
Some of you are going to read this sentence and think I’m a blooming idiot for stating the obvious. Others of you are going to be a bit peeved. After all, we’ve just seen a variety of different written pieces discussing Laura Amy Schlitz’s THE HIRED GIRL, and not all aspects of that debate actually required that the participants read her book. So let me clarify a little bit here.
First and foremost, I’m not singling out the HIRED GIRL discussions with this idea. For as long as there has been book criticism there has been the question of whether or not a person declaring that a book is worthy or unworthy actually has to read it. Take THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. After all, we’ve read reviews by trusted individuals saying it’s bad, quoting specific passages. So when you read a lot of reviews and criticisms of a book online or in print, any book, you begin to feel like you’ve really read that puppy. Moreover, if you have something to add to the conversation, you’d like to do so without taking time out to read something that will take you, at a minimum, a couple of days. Internet debates only last so long. Miss your window and the discussion has moved onto other things.
[UPDATE: Initially my example was MEIN KAMPF and then someone pointed out that this is a fairly terrible example, and I happen to agree. MEIN KAMPF is not a children’s book for one thing, so why the heck am I including it? I’ve switched it to THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS in retrospect, but when you read the first few comments that’s what they’re referring to.]
So when I say you have to read a book to critique it, what I’m not saying is that you can’t discuss an aspect of the book or a point that someone has raised about it. What I am saying is that you cannot make a blanket critique that it is good or bad, worth reading or not worth reading, without actually reading THE WHOLE THING (not just the beginning and not just bits and pieces) yourself. Nor can you write a review, or discuss it within the larger context of literature as a whole. You have to read the book.
Some folks are arguing that this shouldn’t be necessary. If a book is consistently upsetting or insulting or filled with aspects that are objectionable to you (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) then why should you torture yourself by reading the whole thing? I mean, what’s the likelihood that it’s all going to turn around for you by the end? This argument is baffling to me, because if you’re going to critique a written work, don’t you WANT to find that potentially offensive or insulting material? Take ERAGON. Here’s a book I read back in 2004. I did not care for it, but I read every last stinking page. And because I did I was able to write the following in my review:
“It got to the point where I started keeping track of the times that Eragon went to sleep. As it stands, the book is a hefty 497 pages of text. Perhaps this could have been halved if Paolini hadn’t decided to spell out every single time Eragon beds down. Of direct references alone (not moments alluded to, though there were plenty of those as well) I counted 19. If you want to have some fun, read the first sentence of the 4th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 23rd, 27th, 29th, 31st, 34th, 35th, 36th, 38th, 39th, 41st, 45th, 48th, 52nd, 54th, 56th and 57th chapters. I’ve never witnessed a character that did so much waking up. Even more fun was counting the number of times Eragon is knocked unconscious. A book reviewer once commented that you can sometimes tell how good a book is by how many times its hero is knocked out. “Eragon” contains at least six such moments.”
I never would have known about any of this if I’d just stopped reading halfway through. I might have been a happier individual, but I couldn’t have reviewed the book.
In many ways, critiquing a book on a single sentence or comments others have made about it is very familiar territory. It’s what we face all the time when someone attempts to restrict a book in a library. I’m going to ask the librarians amongst us to now think back to their MLIS training. I don’t know about all of you, but when I was in library school I was taught that when facing a book challenge there are certain steps you have to take. First and foremost, you never ever get defensive. The person challenging the children’s or YA book has the interests of kids at heart. They honestly and truly believe that it would be hurtful to the child in some crucial and critical way if they read this book. So what do you do? The very first thing you do is ask them a simple question: Have you read the book? If they have not, you ask them to do so. Then, if they would like to proceed with the challenge, you go to the next step. Because if they want to remove a book from a library simply because they heard it was bad, or because they read a single sentence or saw some art out of context, then you know they’re not getting the full picture.
Context is key. Sometimes reading a sentence without reading the rest of the book puts it in a terrible light. Other times, it’s completely on track with the rest of the book. You don’t really know which of the two it’s going to be until you pick that book up and take in every last sentence. I think back now to the only Newbery Award winning book that is currently out-of-print. Can you name it? Maybe others have joined its ranks in the last few years, but I think I’m correct in saying that DANIEL BOONE by James Daugherty is the single most offensive children’s book I’ve ever read. I reviewed it on Amazon in 2004 (2004 was a good year for my angriest of reviews, back when I was in my 20s and full of spitfire and vinegar) and in my review I quoted this passage, which in turn is quoting THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF DAVID CROCKETT:
“…I saw some warriors run into a house, until I counted forty-six of them. We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and raising her feet she drew with all her might and let fly at us and she killed a man, whose name I believe was Moore. He was a lieutenant and his death so enraged us all that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her…We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and it burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh were broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian when his dander is up that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters”.
Now you might read that passage and think you shouldn’t read DANIEL BOONE at all. And you’d be right! It’s a terrible terrible book, and this section is indicative of the whole. But the only reason I know this is because I sat down and read the whole thing. Now I can bring it up every time we talk about offensive award winners, or books in the past with content inappropriate for child readers today. But I could NOT do that if I just read that passage alone. I had to read the book. The horrible horrible book.
For some folks, it’s a point of pride when they haven’t finished a book. They mention that they thought it was offensive and “not my kind of thing” and the indication being that if you did finish the book then you must like offensive books. Another person I was in a debate with mentioned late in the conversation that they weren’t even sure if the book we were discussing was in print yet (it was).
I’m non-confrontational by nature but I’ll engage in a healthy swapping of ideas if the internet allows. I can’t do that very well when I have all the information and the person I’m debating doesn’t. Our different opinions and debates and conversations only really work when we all are working from the same basic starting point.
So that’s my controversial suggestion. Reading books: It’s a good thing. Give it a try whenever you are able.
[UPDATE 2: There is an amazing debate going on in the comments. So much so that I want to recap a part of it here.
So folks are mentioning that I’m basically combining two different things in my post. There is offensive and traumatic material on the one hand and there’s silly/annoying/badly written stuff on the other. So when I write a title like “You Have to Read the Book” it sounds like I’m saying that when you’re reading something traumatic you have to keep going. NOT my intention but of course that’s what it sounds like, so understandable that folks would be upset with that idea. My point was that critiquing a book or reviewing it requires knowledge of the entire book. But, I’m grateful for people mentioning that Eragon and Daniel Boone are two entirely different situations. Read the comments for more thoughts on the matter.]
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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