Since joining the women at Great New Books to write book reviews a few times a year, I’ve been reading more newly published work than I usually do. Our charge is simple, on the face of it: fall in love with a recently released book and recommend it to others.
I read a lot and love a lot of what I read, so I thought this would be easy. It was in the case of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. But it’s been harder since then. For example, I picked up Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, strongly endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, and read it with every intention of loving and reviewing it.
It had all of the elements that I look for in a favorite: allusions to other loved books, in this case Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Bluest Eye; a compelling story about an underdog; a brave look at complex issues like gender, race, and poverty; and frequently beautiful imagery threaded throughout the narrative. And yet. I appreciate but don’t love the book, and don’t plan to review it.
This experience of wanting to love stories that other people love is universal. One of my best friends, who usually shares my opinions on what to read, texted me when she was 80 pages into Ferrante: “I’m trying but not loving it. What am I missing?” Students have asked me this same question hundreds of times. With Faulkner. With Whitman. With Bronte. With Joyce.
As an English teacher, I have actually been in the business of book reviewing for a long time. The difference is, in the classroom, my recommendation is much more than mere suggestion and there is no quitting on a book once we are underway.
Every time I have chosen a book to teach to my students, I have essentially given it a gold star and made a promise that what I’m asking them to read is worthwhile and important. Even though it’s usually a completely accepted book, a prize winner or written by a prize winner, I hope I am adding to its legacy by introducing it to young readers who will think about it for the rest of their lives, maybe even love it.
Or not. Either way, it’s okay. Reading is a practice that builds relationships among readers, whether we love what we read all of the time, or not.