I have people say to me that writing book reviews is hard. I would generally agree. After you’ve spent hours, days, maybe even a week or two reading someone else’s words, organized in their own fashion, it can feel difficult to organize one’s own thoughts and reactions. Plus, there’s always a sense of self-doubt… You may have written 80 reviews but there’s the back-of-the-mind thought that you will not be able to put the words together that are needed to finish review number 81.
Sometimes we may need to pretend in order to lessen the self-perceived stress. There’s a nice story about the Beatles that proves this point. After the death of John Lennon, Yoko One found two cassette tapes with unfinished song bits (ideas) that John had recorded. She gave these tapes to Paul, George and Ringo and asked if they might consider working on the bits, to complete the songs. Paul, for one, responded that he didn’t think he could do this; it would involve too much pressure in a time of grief.
Yoko thought about this and returned with a novel approach. She said to the three remaining band members, “Why don’t you put aside the fact that you’re doing this because John is dead. How about if you just pretend that he left for a nice vacation? He mailed you these tapes, noting that he didn’t have time to finish the songs before leaving. He’s asked if you lads would help him do so.” This mind-set changed everything, especially for Paul McCartney. With the able assistance of Jeff Lynne, two new Beatles songs (“Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”) were released to the world and went to number one.
When I finish a book, I start a review with a game of pretension. I pretend that an avid reader good friend has sent me an e-mail: “I am really interested in the new book by John Jones. One of our friends told me that you’ve just read it. What do you think?” My first draft is, in my mind, an e-mail response that’s written quickly and informally. Yes, I will do some subsequent re-writing and rely on an editor or two to reorganize or touch up my thoughts, but simply getting the thoughts out there – putting them on the screen – helps me to remember that I can do this.
To me, the hesitation of the book reviewer (wasn’t it Jackie De Shannon who wrote the song, “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”?) is due to the notion that somewhere in the Universe there exists an ideal book reviewer voice. But we all have different ideas of what that voice should sound like: authoritative, bitchy, humble, folksy, friendly, obnoxious, learned/professorial, artsy, formal, positive or chirpy cheerleader, chippy, negative nay sayer or doomsday crier. And none of these are the real voice of the helpful reviewer. That reviewer speaks in your voice or my voice – a voice that expresses an honest opinion that the reader of the review is free to either accept or reject. But the highest honor a review reader may pass on is to say, “Yours was an honest voice.”
Sometimes it may even arrive in the form of an e-mail message, “I didn’t agree with your conclusions about this book, but I know that you spoke (and wrote) honestly.” High praise, indeed! Enough to get us ready to write review number 81, 82 or 182.
This is one article in a continuing series. Pictured: You Never Give Me Your Money – The Beatles After the Breakup by Peter Doggett, released by HarperStudio on June 8, 2010. “Peter Doggett’s book about the Beatles’ split is a real page-turner.” Annie Lennox