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how long the lines would be

I’ve said it before. I think I started saying it when I worked as a librarian in the leisure-reading library of a hospital, and people would ask me for reading recommendations: when they insisted on hearing what I would read, I would carefully point out that that’s not necessarily relevant to their needs. We can’t all like the same things in life, and it’s a good thing: imagine how long the lines would be.

I think it’s okay, and even beautiful, that we don’t all like the same things or have the same strengths & weaknesses. As my marriage of almost 8 years now continues to grow and flow, I learn more and more how different Husband and I are, in how our minds work, although we share many tastes & values. It makes us a stronger team, which is something I didn’t consciously recognize when we married. That’s a digression, though. I’m talking about what we all enjoy in life. We like different music, different food, different hobbies and different people – and again, good thing, because it wouldn’t work out well if we all wanted to marry the same person or thought Johnny Cash was the *only* artist worth listening to: how boring.

In books, though, there seems to always be a pressure to recognize one novel by a certain author as her classic work, or to agree that Faulkner is high art and Stephen King is pulp. I confess that some part of me still feels this pressure from time to time (although I think I’ve given up on Faulkner). But I’ve been trying for years to learn for myself, and to assert to any audience I may have, that it’s okay that we have different tastes. It really is.

The other day, I reviewed The Tender Bar, a book I loved. Not everyone will love it, though. For one thing, the author is extremely nostalgic and loving of one bar. This should go without saying, but if you are impatient with nostalgia in general, or opposed to bars in particular, this book will not work for you. I read a review online by a reader who doesn’t drink and doesn’t “get” the love of an individual bar: he didn’t like this book. Surprise, surprise. It’s okay! This just wasn’t a good match.

Further, Moehringer indulges in sentiment. If this is a major turn-off for you, no problem; but you should read elsewhere. We don’t all like that tone. And probably many of us like that tone only when it’s a nostalgia we can share – like, if you’ve loved a bar the way Moehringer loves the Publican, you’ll be better able to tolerate and appreciate his sentimental remembrances than if you have not. This doesn’t mean that I’m wrong, or that that other reader is. There’s room for both of us.

A writer I greatly respect recently expressed surprise that I love Rick Bragg as much as I do. He wrote to me:

I’ve always thought Rick Bragg was a bit of a blowhard. Maybe I’m too northern, or too judgmental when it comes to style. Maybe I just like a cleaner line.

When I read those lines, I immediately felt that I knew exactly what he meant; and I understand his criticisms. I think we are observing more or less the same things, although of course I didn’t describe my observations the way my friend did: I had a different personal reaction to the same writer. Because my friend and I are two different people. And isn’t that as it should be?

When I write book reviews solely for this blog, I am speaking with my personal voice, as Julia, about my personal reactions. When I write for ForeWord, or Shelf Awareness, or other employers, I am supposed to remove the personal: I’m supposed to behave like I did when I was a librarian performing readers’ advisory services. I try to show what the book is about and what strengths it has to offer and, in other words (sometimes explicitly, sometimes not), what kind of reader might enjoy it or be turned off. This is why I (rarely) add an addendum to the published review when I repost it here on my blog. This is also why you might see me rate a book lower than the review seemed to imply. That is to say, this is a good book – for a different reader than I.

As the number of books I read and review continues to grow, I continue to feel lucky to get to do this work. I love learning, I love meeting new people and concepts between the pages, and I love the intellectual as well as the emotional play between the book and myself. And I guess I just wanted at this point to stop and say: we won’t all love the same things, and that’s a beautiful fact. Take my ratings with a grain of salt. Ideally even, learn my tastes so you can recognize where we will and won’t agree. Don’t be afraid to like different things than the next person. I know a lot of people can’t stomach Hemingway, and that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends! Anyway, the lines are shorter this way.

3 Responses

  1. VERY well done! You should get this one published.

    Well, THIS unbiased reader liked it, anyway….

  2. […] the irony: I said just the other day that I was done with Faulkner, and yet here we are. In a continuation of going through those pages […]

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