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Our Reading Lives

I Hate Book Reviews (So Why Do I Keep Writing Them?)

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

Unsurprisingly, I was a book-loving kid. And although I didn’t always love the books assigned to me in school, I was happy to devour as many stories as I could get my hands on.  But there was one aspect to this wonderful world of books and reading that I couldn’t get behind, and that was the dreaded book report.

I participated in multiple reading programs in school, and I could always easily hit the “books read” target, but the problem was that we had to prove we read the book, and that was through a book report. It felt impossible to me. How do you describe the immersive story experience that is a good book? The book already told this story in as few words as possible. How am I supposed to sum it up in a paragraph? It felt like being told to summarize a painting by sketching it on a post-it note.

I managed to painfully drag those reports out of my brain, but it never felt natural. Later, I found the essays assigned about books much more doable: they tackled one specific aspect of the book(s), one argument, not an attempt to describe the entire novel.

My discovery of the bookternet was bittersweet. Here were all these amazing people talking about books! A whole community of my people! But it seemed to all be book review blogs. I enjoy reading a good review sometimes, of course. Usually that’s when it is a book I read and loved–or occasionally a book I read and loathed. At best, I only skim reviews of books I haven’t read. I want to know just enough to decide whether it’s worth reading it or not. Even reviews that claim to be spoiler free will still influence my attitude about a book, and I don’t want that.

I wanted to be part of this bookish online community, however, and I especially wanted to contribute to the tiny queer bookish corner of this group. So, I reluctantly got back on board the book review train. I started my own (queer women) book blog and ever since, I’ve reviewed virtually every queer women book I’ve read–which is usually every other book. I love the queer bookish community that I have access to through the blog, but my dirty secret is that I still hate writing book reviews.

More than a decade later, I’m still not really sure what book reviews/reports are for, or what makes a good one. I’ve gotten better at writing them, but I’m still not sure who I’m writing for or to what purpose. I want to help publicize great queer books, but are book reviews the best way to do it? How do we write about books without writing reviews? Or can book reviews be productive places for conversation if done well?

I find that although writing reviews can be difficult, and I usually don’t feel completely satisfied with the finished product, I do feel like they improve my reading life. I think more critically while I read if I know that I have to review it afterwards. I engage with the book more. And after writing about it, I remember the book better once I put it down.

So I find myself torn on the subject of book reviews. I rarely read them, but I often write them. I dislike doing them, but I like having done them. Clearly, I still have some feelings to work through on this hot topic, so help me out: What are your feelings on book reviews?