Reviewing Good Reads (including thoughts on The Luminaries)

I’ve been a member of Good Reads for the second time for a month now, and today I received an email from them requesting that I rate their site.

It’s good timing on their part–no doubt, someone has done research into matters of feedback and timing–because I had recently been thinking about the ways that Good Reads has affected my reading.

The first time I joined Good Reads, I attempted to show not only what I was reading at the time but also what I had read in the past.  I soon learned that trying to review every book I had ever read was a fool’s errand. It left no time for reading. And it felt competitive.

I felt inadequate as a by-product of the sense of competitiveness Good Reads engendered in me, so I quit the site and breathed a sigh of relief. If that sounds precious, then I assure you, those feelings emerged at a complex intersection of my personal history of class and capital in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of social relations.

Anyway, I rejoined Good Reads with far more modest ambitions. I really just wanted to know how many books I might read in the year ahead.

To this end, Good Reads provides the opportunity to set yourself a reading challenge. I’m not a prolific reader, so I’ve set myself a modest number of 26 books for the year.  A friend noted of the challenge she set herself last year, that while she didn’t meet it, it had the effect of making her sit down and read. I’ve already noticed that Good Reads has  had this effect on my reading habits too, and a sense of purpose about reading is not a bad thing at all.

An effect of Good Reads that I’m more ambivalent about is that I tend to read in anticipation of assigning a star rating and perhaps finding something to say to justify that rating. On the one hand, the description attached to each star is different to what I would intuitively assign to them. For example, if I thought a book was ‘okay’, I would assign three stars rather than the two afforded by Good Reads for that description. No doubt, my rating is a hangover of marking essays and assigning grades. 2 out of 5 stars would be a fail in an essay–not having made the half-way mark–whereas three stars is a pass: it’s ‘okay’. I’ve made every effort to adjust my rating system to that of Good Reads, but still, I feel a bit mean assigning a well-loved children’s classic like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe only two stars. Similarly, my three star rating of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites doesn’t quite convey the degree to which I liked it.  I liked it.  It’s better than a passing grade but, for the reasons I outlined in my review, I didn’t really like it enough to indicate that with a four star rating. (I do wish I Good Reads would allow half-star ratings.)

I recently saw an article on Brain Pickings about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘How should one read a book?’  Woolf asks the reader to ‘banish all … preconceptions when we read ….’ She continues: ‘Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.’

Without a doubt, one of the effects of Good Reads for me is that by Woolf’s measure, I do not read well. I approach each book with a critical mindset; I do, indeed, hang back. For example, while reading The Luminaries, upon encountering the descriptions of the characters representing the stellar bodies, I immediately thought of the composition principle  ‘show, don’t tell’. Why, I asked, am I being told how they will act and react in any given situation? Why aren’t I simply witnessing these characters interacting?

Perhaps, at this point, I was closing myself off to the ‘signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences’ that Woolf suggests the author offers the reader, that were being offered by Catton, that I had ignored in my rush to compose my Good Reads review even while I was still reading.

I had finished reading  The Luminaries, when I was directed to a review of Catton’s reviews in the Sydney Review of Books, which pricked my conscience about my reading as much as Woolf’s instruction. Julian Novitz considers the bad reviews of Catton’s novel in view of her conscious and ironic use of 19th century literary devices. He defends Catton against the critics who dismiss her novel as ‘pastiche’ and a ‘creative writing exercise’ arguing for the merit of formal inventiveness. Here, I reflected,  if Catton did tell her reader about her characters, did not show them by way of their daily interactions, then my reaction to her anachronistic storytelling could only be, as Novitz suggests, due to her ‘wry metafictional reflection on the nature of storytelling’.

Novitz’s defence of The Luminaries is convincing on many levels and it makes me want to appreciate the book more, but ultimately, I don’t know that ‘an awareness of the structure working behind it [does deepen] one’s pleasure and absorption’

At my book club, which I read this novel for, the enjoyment of the mystery story of The Luminaries was unanimous. Most felt relieved that such a large novel was so absorbing and thought, at last the Booker had been awarded to a rollicking good story rather than a worthy tome. The astrologically informed structure and 19th century literary devices were peripheral to their conscious pleasure and absorption.

In the end, I enjoyed the story too, even as I admitted the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ critics of Woolf’s essay into my reading. Still,  as I came to understand Novitz’s pleasure in  ‘the structure working behind it’, I couldn’t share in it.  The astrological premise simply didn’t resonate for me.

***

Despite my reservations about the effects of Good Reads on my reading, I won’t be deleting my account again.  I’m still curious to see how many books I’ll read and it will be nice to have a contained record to review my thoughts on my reading. As well, I enjoy seeing my friend’s ratings and reading their reviews–they’re smart and insightful and I get ideas for things to read. With a bit of effort and some help from Virginia Woolf, I think–I hope–I will, eventually, be a good reader on Good Reads.

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About Kirsty Leishman

Currently enrolled in a Grad Dip of Teaching and Learning in anticipation of teaching English and Film, TV & New Media to high school students. Abandoned a PhD in television. Completed an MPhil on zines. Honours in Australian grunge literature. Long time university tutor of media, communications, cultural studies and academic writing. Opinionated. View all posts by Kirsty Leishman

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