Our Reading Lives

Why I Never Change My Book Reviews (Except…)

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Zachary Littrell

Staff Writer

Zach comes from Maryland, greets people with "Howdy!," and is happy to talk with anybody about books and mathematics. And as someone who keeps a hammock in his living room, he’s an expert at hearing people say, “Oh cool, is that a hammock in your living room?” Twitter: @AnAnteaterMaybe

Earlier this year, another Book Rioter talked about revising cringe-worthy book reviews. And I agree with a lot of the sentiments—we grow as readers and people, and we don’t want to leave our outdated opinions unedited for other people to read. But personally, I never change my reviews or ratings of books, and it’s for a mildly selfish reason: I treat my reviews like a scrapbook of my life.

And you wouldn’t revise the photos in your scrapbook…would you?

Reason 1: what did I think like?

My reviews are never really intended for anyone else besides me. I write them the moment (or day after) I finish a book. And this makes them into little snapshots of what I thought like at that time. And I like looking back months, or years, and playing archaeologist: something in my life was going on at the time I wrote each review.

  • I started a new job in Illinois while reading Peter Beagle’s A Dance For Emilia
  • I moved into a new apartment (and a new president was elected…ahem…) when listening to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
  • And I (apparently) spent Valentine’s Day 2016 like we all should, reading Han Kang’s dark novel about sisterhood and violating social mores, The Vegetarian…huh. I guess I must’ve been in a really good place at the time…

Revisiting old reviews lets me get a glimpse of my thought processes, for better or for worse. Was I a little more or less cynical then? Could that string of 3 star ratings back in 2015 have had ANYTHING to do with the end of a longterm relationship? Why was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar so impactful to me in 2016?

Like Henry David Thoreau said,

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

And so these reviews act like little landmarks. They jog my memory and crystallize who I was and how I felt (about books and ideas) in a way a photograph never could.

Reason 2: What did I write like?

Book cover for Kei Miller's A Light Song of LightAnd I can also see how my writing style has changed. The reviews I first wrote were generic, eye-rolling, and full of cliches. Rereading my review of Kei Miller’s excellent poetry collection, A Light Song Of LightI apparently said [bold added by me right now]:

“My heart is all a flutter when I think of the emotions and events that Kei Miller captured and gave birth to on these pages. A Light Song of Light is truly dichotomous […yadda yadda yadda]”

Blech! Gag me with a spoon, why dontcha. It’s all highfalutin buzzwords that say little about the book. But with those old, eye-rolling  reviews, I can really appreciate how my writing voice has developed and evolved into what it is today.

Reason 3: What did i like?

Meanwhile, my standard for what constitutes as “five stars” has DEFINITELY changed. Looking back on 2014, it seems like I was handing out five stars like candy. Or maybe I was just more apt to read books I know I’d like back then, while I’ve since expanded my horizons and made a point of reading books outside my usual wheelhouse. Either way, altering the ratings would ruin my ability to self-analyze my interests and tastes as a reader.

disclaimer: when i’ll change a review

Now, all that said, I reserve the right to be a hypocrite. I recognize that other people see these reviews too, and if a past review truly rubbed me the wrong way morally, my conscience would definitely outweigh my little archaeology project. And I have gone back and altered my reviews—but only to fix grammar mistakes and light readability issues, just because they bug the crap out of me every time I re-read them.

But barring a strong impulse, my book reviews to me are set in stone. I don’t have to agree with them forever, and I often don’t. I’ve learned to enjoy and appreciate trashy books, and some of the most impactful novels I’ve read, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, took a year to steep in my brain. But Zach-at-that-moment felt a particular way when he wrote each review, and it would be wrong of me to play revisionist and rob him of his opinion. I’ll just roll my eyes at what a big ol’ dummy he was.


How about you? Do you write your reviews and then leave them in the rearview mirror, or do you treat them more as something constantly in progress that you regularly change as your opinion does?