Years ago, a friend made a comment about my plans to grow the little used bookshop I had bought into something more substantial. She lived in Manhattan and was an avid reader, back in the day when Manhattan had an ample supply of independent bookshops; she was friends with the owners or managers of several shops. Her comment: “Booksellers never have time to read the books, only the reviews.”
At the time, I thought this couldn’t be true. Years later, I think of the statement frequently as I gaze around my shop at the abundance of volumes that I don’t have time to read. My threat on days when I feel particularly frustrated is that I will lock the doors for a year and just read! Unfortunately, I might find my customer base severely diminished when I unlock.
Like all blanket statements, this one has a basis in truth but is not absolutely true. I, and most booksellers, read quite a bit. The problem is that even if I took a solid year and did nothing else, I would not be able to keep up with all that is published. Yet I am faced daily with choices to make for filling my shelves with all those books I will probably never read. What is a trustworthy way of making the choice?
Bestseller lists are useful, not necessarily because these are the most worthy books, but because they will sell, and the bills have to be paid. And so I stock things I may consider frivolous. Every community is different, so even what the New York Times or Publishers Weekly tells me is selling elsewhere may languish here. The trick is to listen to the conversations in the shop, not only what customers ask for, but what they say to each other. (Yes, I eavesdrop.)
What about all the fine work that never makes it to these “bestseller” lists, those books that might not be found except for the opportunity to browse in a real shop or the recommendation of the bookseller? Since we can’t read them all, how do we choose what to stock and what to recommend? Often, a selection is made because a customer whose opinion I value has commented favorably on a work. And yes, I spend a lot of time reading reviews.
I had planned to write this week about reviews even before reading Erin’s post yesterday. I was thinking of the usefulness (or not) of reviews from a bookseller’s, not an author’s, perspective. But whether one is an author or a bookseller, or a reader looking for guidance, I think the key is remembering what your mother probably told you when you received negative comments as a child: “Consider the source.”
There are reviewers whose opinions I respect because I have read many of their reviews, and tend to agree with them. There are others I ignore because they seem to delight in finding the flaws in a work. If I am considering stocking a book, or a series, I try to read as many reviews as I can, to see if there is a consensus pro or con.
If I don’t know any of the reviewers, another factor comes into play. This post was actually inspired by an incident in my shop this week. I saw an ad for a YA series with which I was unfamiliar but which looked interesting. My younger patrons are always looking for something new. I asked Dani, my younger and more-in-touch-with-that-group assistant, what she thought. She was also unaware of the series, but did a little research. Her final judgment: “The reviews are generally good, and all the bad ones are by people who can’t spell or write a sentence.”
Very simply, if you can’t handle the basics of the language, you lose credibility no matter how insightful your thoughts on a topic may be. If you don’t know the basics, then it’s doubtful that you’ve read enough to comment meaningfully on someone’s work. If you know the conventions but choose to ignore them, either out of laziness or rebellion, your goal is something other than meaningful communication with your reader.
I have pretty much given up on getting annoyed at common errors, although dangling modifiers frequently elicit a chuckle. Many writers on blogs, review sites, and other on-line forums feel that the details of grammar or spelling are insignificant as long as the reader understands the meaning. Fine. But this casualness has progressed in some cases to incomprehensibility. There is a reason for the rules; they give us a way of expressing our thoughts in something other than a jumble of words. If I have to read a sentence three times and still cannot figure out what it means, I conclude that the writer has nothing of interest to say. Unfortunately, I have run across this problem even in newspapers and periodicals where one would expect some editing to have occurred. Again, I’m not talking about common errors of grammar, but unintelligibility. Small errors make me a bit skeptical about the writer’s intelligence; an unfathomable sentence causes me to dismiss the entire review (or blog post, or whatever). Sloppy writing is, to me, a sign of sloppy thinking.
Yes, I read reviews. But I consider the source. If my first impression is negative, it’s on to the next review. And your opinion didn’t count.