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You can’t judge a book by its review

The last book I read was fabulous. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women shocked me, and moved me, and changed me.

When I finished it, I wanted to talk about it to anyone and everyone, but to my frustration, I couldn’t find anyone else who had read it. Then, when I was scrolling through Facebook, casting my eyes over photos of ugly but beloved pets and posts from despairing home schooling parents, I spotted the book. Finally, someone else who would surely have loved the book as much as I had.

I eagerly read what this other reader had thought. My anticipation turned to disappointment as the reviewer wrote of how much they had disliked it.

“I feel really disappointed and frustrated by this book. I had such high hopes but I found myself getting bored, angry and rolling my eyes at the author,” they wrote.

Ok, I thought. Anyone can have bad taste. But then I scrolled through the comments and found that lots of people felt the same way. Many hadn’t even bothered finishing it.

It was not the first time this week when I had been jolted by someone’s bookish opinion. In The Age, Jessie Tu wrote a disparaging review of Normal People, a book that I enjoyed reading last year. I was impressed by Sally Rooney’s ability to capture the emotions and social realities of her characters – I felt she conveyed their doubts, frailties and hopes perfectly.

I felt irritated by Tu’s take in which she had qualms about issues that I never would have noticed. She wrote about the ‘whiteness’ of the characters and their privileged lives. I huffed, but then I thought about it. The reason for our different perspectives was obvious and neither she nor I was wrong. We were just responding to the book in a way that was coloured by our own backgrounds and experiences.

Unfortunately, it is not always so easy to see a book from a different perspective, and certainly a beloved book.

Bestselling author John Green hit the nail on the head when he said:

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”

It is when those humans don’t feel the same zeal that a certain distain arises, and even a hint of anger. How can everyone not feel the same way towards a books so unequivocally good?

In our evangelical zeal, a harsh comment against a favourite book can almost seem personal; God forbid anyone disparages Sofie Laguna’s The Choke or Anna Funder’s All That I Am.

I can still remember my grandmother’s surprise, and possibly hurt, when I said that I didn’t enjoy The Reader by Bernhard Schlink the way she had. Then, we almost came to blows when she said that she didn’t like We Need to Talk About Kevin. She felt no one could be as awful as Kevin but I felt he was entirely believable.

It is interesting that those discussions in which we aired differing views about books – which we had more than a decade ago – are among the most memorable conversations I had with her.

It was an early lesson that everyone who doesn’t like the same books as I do might not be as weak minded as I thought.

So, perhaps Jessie Tu and all of those commenters have a valid point of view, it is just a different one to mine. I will try not to hate them for it.


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