Wednesday, September 14, 2005

[Essay] The Art of Book Reviews: It’s Not As Easy As It Looks

Not so long ago, I thought that my ideal job would be that of a book reviewer; doing nothing but read books all day, and then write reviews on them. That wish never came true, and even if it did, it would probably be less than perfect.

For example, my reading taste revolves around a certain genre: namely fantasy and science-fiction. I imagine that there are two extremes a book reviewer will face: either he gets to choose which books he wants to review, or he gets whatever is thrown his way, either by the publisher or the publication he’s working for. In the case of the former, it’s not a problem for the reviewer, but it might be for his readers, because the subject matter he tackles revolves around a small niche, and might end up writing derivative reviews. As for the latter, the reviewer might have more variety, but there’s a good chance he’ll be reading a lot of horrible books. And unlike the casual reader who can simply put down a novel that doesn’t interest them, you have to plough through the book from beginning to end. It’s like Simon from American Idol forcing himself to listen to William Hung for one full hour, just to be sure that Hung really is that horrible, and to what extent.

Assuming a book reviewer manages to balance his book choices, the next question he faces is how many books he will review. Theoretically, the more books he can cover, the better. Unlike other forms of media which has a set number of pages or a fixed time, books not only come in all shapes and sizes, they come in various thickness and font sizes as well. A music album release, for example, takes around an hour, while watching a movie two hours (Lord of the Rings, Dances with Wolves, and JFK being the exception). Reading a book, however, has no definite time (unless you’re talking of audio books). Readers read at their own pace, and allot different hours for reading them. One of the worst questions I encounter (and I get this often) is how long does it take me to finish reading a book. If they want a specific answer, they’ll have to give me a specific book. Children’s books (but remember, there are various kinds of children’s books) take me around a few hours to finish. Paperbacks in the 300-400 pages count take me a day or two. Mammoth books with page counts amounting to four digits takes me longer. Content also plays a significant role. Does the book contain pictures, and how much? Is the language simple, or is it as complex as reading James Joyce’s Ulysses? Are the paragraphs long, or are they broken down into shorter segments? One has to realize that no books are identical, although some books share similarities with others, especially books by the same author (but that’s as far as it goes).

Once again, we go back to the number of books a person is capable of reviewing. It all depends on the person’s capability, and what kind of books he’s reviewing. An adult novel or two for me is okay. Anything more than that depends on my passion and availability. I mean is doing book reviews feeding me and my family? If so, I can probably afford to drop everything else, and start reading for the first three weeks of the month, and then churn out the reviews at the last. If not, then what can I accommodate into my schedule, taking into account work, recreation, and my social life.

Then there’s the actual review writing. The first thing every reviewer should ask is who their audience is. Am I writing the review for fiction aficionados? Or the casual reader? Kids? Perhaps even the non-reader. This will take into account your writing style, and how you will tackle your subject matter. As a fantasy reader, for example, if my audience are fantasy fans, then I can drop multiple allusions to other fantasy work and/or writers into my review. If not, then It’s probably better for me to stick to something more mainstream when it comes to name dropping.

Knowing your audience also helps the reviewer answer this one important question: to spoil or not to spoil? Many people who read book reviews will be irked if they read a review that has spoilers, especially when unwarned. However, giving out spoilers is sometimes inevitable, as reviewers need to mention something about the book in order to review it; one should just be wary to what extent he spoils the reader. Readers who’ve already read the book obviously will not care about the spoilers, but instead appreciate it as the reviewer can go more into detail about what’s good or what’s wrong with the book, and can cite the specific circumstance. So on one end, spoilers can alienate the casual reader, but gives the reviewer more tools to work with. On the other, a reviewer can limit the spoilers he reveals, but has to be more general in his review of the novel.

What do I mean by limiting spoilers? Well, the book summaries at the back of books already do spoil readers, as they sometimes mention the plot of the book or the premise. There are even rare circumstances when book cover summaries actually spoil the main gist of the story (hint to readers: never read back covers if you want to fully enjoy the reading experience!). Book reviewers might want to start from there. Of course there’s no set rule, and reviewers will debate with themselves what to include and what not to. Should I name the person that gets killed, or simply let it be known that a character dies? Should I tell that the book’s plot is really about this, or should I let the reader discover it for themselves? Obviously, if a reviewer doesn’t mind giving out spoilers, he doesn’t have to ponder on these unnecessary decisions, and just write the best review he can come up with, mentioning all the elements he thinks are important. And in that sense, the best book review is perhaps one that contains spoilers, because the reviewer doesn’t need to hold himself back. However, the best book reviews aren’t always what readers are looking for, and simply need a nudge whether to buy this book or not.

In the end though, what makes a book review work or not is the sensibilities of both the reviewer and the reader. If there’s a huge disparity in their preferences, no matter how much the reviewer recommends the book, or how well-written the review is, the reader might just end up disappointed. The problem isn’t with the reviewer but with the reader: what the reader needs to do is look for a book reviewer whose tastes are similar to theirs. Thus a favorable review will elicit positive reactions from the reader. There’s no secret formula for readers to know which book reviewers are for them. Sometimes, you get a hint from their reviews, but more often than not, it’s a hit-or-miss thing, and the only way to know is to pick up a book they recommend (or not recommend).

Monday, September 12, 2005

[Essay] Justice

Perhaps it’s because I live in a third-world country, but the word justice often comes up, and in various contexts. It could mean food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, fair wages for the masses, or simply punishing the unjust. The last point I want to expound on. In media, in literature, and in real life, the lines between justice and revenge (or vengeance, if you prefer) is blurred. If we want someone punished, we cry out for justice. If there’s a mass-murderer out there, we seek his capture so that he may be sentenced to death. And you know, that kind of reaction is natural, human nature. It’s as reflexive as kicking when the doctor taps you kneecap. Many supporters of this kind of belief will usually favor the Old Testament, quoting the passages of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Turning your other cheek is so unnatural that it’s what makes Christian doctrine so progressive for its time. Yet for all the beliefs that the Bible instills in its followers, people still clamor for revenge in the guise of justice. But is this what rational, enlightened people should ask, let alone a just and merciful deity should condone?

Throughout grade school and high school, I’m the kid that gets pushed around, a prime target of the bullies. In my eyes, if there’s anyone who should seek deific vengeance, it’s me, one of the oppressed. Some people might even carry bitter feelings inside them even if such incidents were a decade old. Fortunately, I’m not one of them. Perhaps the day I was converted to another kind of belief was when I met one of the people who bullied me. He approached me as a friend rather than an oppressor. He was asking if he could borrow some money for me, nothing large, just a few coins. While I suspected a part of the act was a farce, he didn’t retaliate when I couldn’t give him what he wanted. He merely thanked me and walked away. And over the course of many years, I’d meet people who were once the bullies, the guys on top, live reformed lives. This experience rather than Biblical text is perhaps what showed me that there’s something better than punishment.

Theoretically, reformation is something our society strives for. The reason we put criminals in jail is so that they can know the consequences of their actions and change for the better. Whether it’s effective or not (or even appropriate, as anyone who’s watched or read Les Miserables will know) is an entirely different matter. Yet when a crime is committed and the criminal is apprehended, society clamors the convict to be jailed, not because they hope that he or she will be converted, but in order to be punished. Once again, this is the normal human reaction. When someone kills one of your loved ones, steals your hard-earned money, or threatens your life, the immediate reaction is to strike back. I must admit, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in that. But in such a scenario, I think of the future and realize that at best, what we’ve managed to accomplish is only to rid the world of one less human being. To some people, that’s not so bad. But if you think about it, there’s actually something better.

Don’t you have a friend who was once a bully? Or perhaps someone who was very unlikable, but changed and is now one of your good buddies. It could easily have been a rival, an enemy, or simply someone who gave a wrong first impression. Despite all their faults, they’re your friends now. Let’s assume that you didn’t change, and that it was they who started acting differently. Wouldn’t you have someone, despite (or perhaps because of) their horrible past, be your friend in the present? The alternative of course is that they’d be jailed up somewhere, never to see the light of day. Or worse, sentenced to the death penalty. It’s simple math: zero, or something. Yet many of us prefer the former, thinking that revenge would be sweeter, or that the person would never change for the better. With regards to reformation, you never know unless you give the person a chance. It might not be something you can change in him or her, but circumstances have ways of altering a person, whether for good or ill. As for revenge, well, some do develop a taste for it. To me, it’s just a precious waste of resources. What rules us when it comes to revenge isn’t our intellect, but our appetite. While following our appetite when it comes to food is okay, it’s another thing when it comes to human life.

Let me take things to another level. A friend of mine once told me that she thinks in the afterlife, God will punish the unjust, even if they’ve been converted. She reasons that if that weren’t the case, what happens to the rest who’ve been good all their life? She and I agree on one point though: we don’t know how God will behave. God is, after all, the most justice and good character we can imagine. In this case, my friend believes that God will mete our justice. I don’t, at least not to those who are reformed. Admittedly, a part of me wants to see people punished. As my friend said, what happens to the rest of us who’ve been good the entire time? Where’s the justice in that? But that’s not the rational part of me speaking. An enlightened person would think things through. I mean honestly, if you used to be the most horrible person, and then you genuinely decided to be good, your past is enough to haunt you for the rest of your life. Punishing you in the afterlife is like giving medication to a person who’s cured. Not only is it inappropriate, it’s causing unnecessary pain. Sure, if the person wasn’t sincere in their reformation, go ahead and punish them. But punishing a good person because of their past is as fair as punishing the son for the sins of the father (that’s not to say that the guilty shouldn’t be punished; they have to live with the consequences, but they can expect forgiveness from the merciful).

If that was the case, some of you might be asking, what about the people who’ve been good all their lives? Would their rewards be the same in my vision of an utopian society? Well, there’s the parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder brother, the one who didn’t run away and stayed, asks his father the same question. What about me? There was forgiveness for the Prodigal Son, and the older brother’s initial reaction was where’s the justice in that? God’s answer to him was that he’ll inherit everything He’s built up so far. But in concrete terms, what is that? Well to me, at the very least, the people who’ve lived good lives won’t be bothered by their conscience. I mean if I was a criminal, for example, who eventually reformed, no matter what I do in the present, I’ll still be mentally haunted by my past. Because I can never undo my crimes, and whatever wrong I did to other people will linger in my mind. Call it whatever you want, be it trauma, nightmares, or guilt. If I truly lived my life as holy as I make it out to be, then I won’t have that burden, even if my final fate is the same as the converted.

Before I end, I’d like to point out that no one lives a pure and good life. We’ve all made mistakes, and aren’t we grateful for those who gave us a second, or even a third chance in life? We might not have committed crimes, but we have performed unjust acts. Whether it’s something mortal or venial, there’s always a chance for reformation, for change. The one thing I dislike about death is that it halts change. A dead prisoner can’t be enlightened and ask for penitence, at least not in this life. And for those who judge others in light of their own righteousness, well, it’ll be ironic if God sentenced you to the same punishments you’ve been clamoring for in others.