At the risk of running counter to the purpose of this stupid blog, which is to persuade people to buy my stupid ebooks, I’d like to highlight a one-star review of Senator that just showed up on Amazon:
Too soon after the elections. Just one more book that proves that politicians are first grade liars, and will do anything to stay in power.
It’s easy to be snarky about a review like this. The obvious remedy for the reader’s problem with the book is to read it when she’s not sick of politics. It’s not the book’s fault that she read it right after the election!
On the other hand, this highlights something important about the fickleness of everyone’s judgments about books (and movies and music…). We encounter them at a specific time and place, and our judgments about them are inevitably colored by those circumstances. Sometimes you’re too young for a book; sometimes you’re too old. The books I enjoyed before I had kids may not be the ones I’d enjoy after I had kids. It’s impossible to be completely objective in your assessments of books, and an author shouldn’t blame a reader for not trying.
Based on a recommendation from one of my very fine readers, I recently read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which is number 30 on the list of the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century. (He changed the title of the novel, and also his last name. Read Wikipedia to find out why.) Just for kicks, I read the book in the Kindle app on my new iPhone. And I hated it! But now I’m never likely to be able to fully disentangle my assessment of the novel from the modality by which I encountered it. I thought that reading a book on an iPhone was pretty claustrophobic, with the small screen size giving you such a small view of the text. And guess what — I found The Good Soldier to be claustrophobic as well, with the narrator’s obsessive telling and retelling of his story of the interactions among several decidedly unpleasant people. So, what can I make of the novel? Reading it was at best a two-star experience for me, but maybe reading a leather-bound critical edition of the book would have caused me to give it an extra star or two. Maybe if I hadn’t read parts of it while waiting to get my hair cut, or during half-time of a Patriots game in which the secondary once again wasn’t getting the job done…
That’s why an author should be eternally grateful when he encounters readers who seem to understand and enjoy what he’s trying to do. There are so many ways in which that can fail to happen.