If you are looking for a window into the human condition, but you do not have the time to read books, just look at a collection of book reviews. This can be done in bite-size morsels on your phone while you wait for a train. My first post on this blog is entitled ‘We are all dreaming…’ and it outlines my view that our personal experience is one long dream in which our mind creates a narrative to make sense of the constant steam of information that relentlessly washes over us. All these individual dreams weave together to form a collective dream that we call our culture, and this leads to the idea that we all live a shared life. Anyone who had read the rest of this blog, or my books, should be familiar with my outlook on this concept. So what does this have to do with book reviews?
A work of fiction is a new narrative strand in the vast web of human conversation, and it is woven into this web as it is digested by readers, each of whom has a unique personal narrative. So each of these interactions is also unique, and if the reader in question decides to write down this meeting of minds, then the rest of us can gain an insight into the variety of the human condition because we have the book in question as a reference point.
Over the past few years, it feels as if the total number of words I have read in book reviews has rivalled the number I have read in actual books. Those reviews helped me to avoid books that I would have probably disliked, but they also allowed me to see the variety of reader sensitivity, which is useful to any observer of the human condition.
In this context, my definition of reader sensitivity is how readers react to the elements of a story. Some have a desire to be carried along by an engaging narrative that compels them to turn the next page, whatever the quality of the prose. Other readers are at the opposite end of the spectrum and pay close attention to every sentence; they listen to the music that lies within the cadence of each clause and the rhythm of each phrase. Such sensitivity can lead to an unpleasant experience if applied to lazy writing. A sensitivity for the structure of a story can lead to a punishing journey if the road to the end the book is littered with plot holes, and a love of well-drawn characters can lead to heartbreak if the story is populated with cardboard cut-outs.
The way in which a book is received tells us as much about the variety of humanity as a good story ever could, if we take the time to read and compare the glowing reviews with the scathing ones. I have often noticed that the writers of critical reviews find it difficult to believe that those who gave positive reviews actually read the same book. The emotions elicited by a story lie, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. The enjoyment of a story is not dependent on a love of good sentences that portray strong characters conversing with sharp dialogue as they stride through a great plot. It is an entirely subjective experience that is beyond measurement, but it does give us a measure of the variety of individual narratives that comprise the diversity of humanity.
Even when they read the same text, no two readers ever read the same story. Some readers can overlook poor writing and flat characters because such things are distractions from a full immersion in the story, and if that immersive experience proves satisfying, no one can contest it, especially not connoisseurs of good sentences who grumble at the paucity of the prose. Book reviews shed a light on how fictional stories weave into the collective story of humanity, and so they show us something about ourselves. Some of us demand a lot from authors while others are more easily satisfied, but that difference applies to many more aspects of life than just the written word.