Can You Trust Book Reviews?
Have you ever read reviews after finishing a book, only to be left wondering if you were even reading the same things as everyone else?! It definitely happens to me every once in a while.
Over the past weekend, I finished a book called Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot. It’s a memoir in essays by a Native American writer, focused on her mental health related to relationships and family history.
Lea, my bookish bestie, read this short memoir in one sitting, multi-tasking during March Madness. She texted me a few times while reading, even including a couple pictures of passages that grabbed her.
Since Lea isn’t as big on non-fiction as I am, I took her raving (and later a 4.5 star review on Goodreads) to say a lot about this memoir. I placed a hold with my library and was able to pick up a copy a few days later.
I was only a few pages in when I texted Lea that I was struggling already. This book was going to kick my ass, I could already tell.
Instead of the quick, easy read I anticipated, it took me almost two weeks to get through the 124 pages. I could only process a few pages at a time and was close to quitting on three separate occasions.
As Lea and I discussed Heart Berries via text message, we made some interesting observations about what influences our book reviews.
In the past I’ve talked about how our life experiences shape our reading experiences. This book is a perfect specimen for exploration of this concept.
After perusing a variety of reader reviews of Heart Berries, it’s clear this book affects people in a multitude of ways. Some readers interpret the memoir as being primarily about the author’s relationships with her parents. Lea felt it was more about her obsession with the man she is addressing in the essays.
Sure, I picked up on those threads, but my primary takeaway was this is a memoir about the author’s mental illness, and how that relates her Indian heritage. It’s written in a stream of consciousness style, which I often find difficult to follow regardless of the author.
It feels as if the author is exploiting herself, and perpetuating stereotypes. It’s like she’s saying “Look at what a crazy Indian woman I am, I did all this crazy shit…”
I gave Heart Berries a two star review on Goodreads. That means “it was okay,” which is exactly how I feel about it.
Yet, I can see how this would affect other readers differently. So that brings me to my question at the core of this post: How can you trust a book review?
The short answer is, you can’t.
When I look at a book on Goodreads or Amazon, I look at the cumulative star review first. If it’s a three star book, that could mean everyone gave it three stars, but more likely some gave it one star, some gave it five and the rest fell in the middle. If I want to skim a few reviews, I always read at least three.
The most important thing to keep in mind is, a reader’s life experience influences her reading experiences.
In actuality, there is no way to know for sure if a review is going to match your personal opinions of the same book. Even when it comes to friends I know well, we don’t always match up when I think we might. That’s why I love my book club so much, you never know how five different women with a wide range in age and life experiences are going to react to any given subject matter.
So if I don’t think individual reviews carry much weight, why do I write one for every book I read? Good question!
Partly because I’m a writer and I know how valuable feedback is. But also because I believe reviews en masse can be super helpful. If five different readers mention graphic content that’s difficult to read, I’m going to believe it. However if one out of ten describes a scene to be gratuitously explicit, I figure that’s personal preference.
Our reviews also give us a point of connection. I’m one of the few people I know who hated The Hunger Games books. When I see someone else post about disliking the series, it’s something we have in common right off the bat. And the reverse is true too – if I see that a friend on Goodreads is reading and liking a lot of books I like, I’m going to take her recommendations seriously.
So what do you think about book reviews? Do you care about what they say, or do you ignore them?