As I sit here writing this, I see that it is snowing. Again. I mean, come on. I feel like I’m living in Narnia. Which brings me to my topic this week: book reviews.
I work as a children’s book reviewer. I’ve heard various comments from authors when I tell them what I do. “Be nice,” says one. “Do you even read the book?” says another. “Must take you about fifteen minutes, right?” says the third.
None of these statements is true. I am not nice, since “nice” doesn’t help a person decide if they should spend their hard-earned money to buy the book; rather, I am honest. I read the book. Instead of fifteen minutes, it’s an average of nine hours, plus reading time.
I’ll use a picture book as an example, since how hard can it be to review a picture book, right?
I first read the book (which is usually in the form of an F&G, “folded and gathered”—it’s the picture book without a binding) to establish an overall, ingenuous idea of the story. Then I read it again…and again…and again… I study the typeface; is it effective, does it change, if so, why, where is it placed on the page and does that work? I look at the illustrations; their medium, their placement on the page—does that encourage the page turn, do they respect the gutter, does it balance with the type, does white space come into play? Next I look at the two together. Is the overall design of each page—illustration and text—well thought out with successful execution? Now I look at the content of the illustrations. Do they mirror the text or do they add another layer? Perhaps they even tell their own story, and does this work? Finally, trim size. What size and shape is the overall book? A story of a journey, for example, is usually most successful as a landscape format. My finished review can only be a little more than two hundred words and must follow a specific format. I must get in the plot summary, its successful or unsuccessful execution and why, and a recommendation or not.
My advice to writers who have received a review from a professional reviewer that they are unhappy with—read it very closely. Within the limitations of a word count, the reviewer is trying to tell you something. Those spots that prickle your skin with indignation—take them as critique.
By someone who cares.
Edward O. Wilson’s newest book, a light little tome entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, states that humans are supposed to be conflicted. It is actually in our DNA. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard and a biologist, says that as humans were evolving, an individual human would have the biological advantage of survival if he acted selfishly, but a group of humans would have the biological advantage of survival if the members of that group acted altruistically. Since banding into groups was actually necessary for the survival of the species, altruistic group behavior needed to develop. But individual selfish behavior resulted in an advantage within the group (bigger share of the kill, more procreation) so that those selfish individuals themselves thrived. Ergo, conflict in our very DNA. Help the group so the species survives; help yourself so that you thrive within the group.
There’s a lot more in his book about why humans are fascinated with gossip, why we need such large memory banks (which is partly why our brains are so big) why the idea of belonging to a tribe (think of tribe broadly—religion, sports, race, economic status, etc.) is so strong and dictates so much of our behavior.
I was fascinated. Makes us seem less complicated, somehow. More cause and effect. I highly recommend giving it a read.
I recently read an early draft of the novel, Passion Blue, published in 2012. It has been well received and I am eager to read the published version. The story revolves around Guilia, a girl living in fifteenth century Italy, who is trying to change what she believes is a deleterious fate. Her horoscope (and casting horoscopes was considered a science in fifteenth century Italy) seems to indicate that she will never marry. In the fifteen hundreds, females had very little rights and it was only though the protection of marriage that they had anything like a secure life. Or so Guilia thinks, so she tries to change her fate through sorcery.
When she gets sent off to a monastery, where she discovers the world of painting, it becomes obvious that this, not a husband, is where her passion and security lies. However, Guilia stills holds to her original idea of a husband. She thinks she knows better than the stars what her fate should be and to that end she tries to command them to her will. The consequences of her decisions is the plot of the book.
The book’s theme, that of free will versus fate intrigues me. It opens up the idea that, with our limited scope and experience, we think we know the way our world should go, and try to arrange events accordingly. It makes me wonder if most of the heartache in life comes from trying to force our idea of free will on fate. Which is not to say that we can only let things happen to us. There’s a finer distinction here that I’m struggling to understand.
I once read in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, something that went like this: “if you want to control a sheep or cow, give them a bigger pasture.” That seems counter intuitive to the idea of control, but I think what that phrase is doing is challenging our idea of control altogether. That it is saying that control in the larger sense is about the control to let things become what they are meant to become. We cannot see what the overall tapestry is, since we are only one thread in it and have the viewpoint of only seeing the threads nearest us. So we try to arrange our limited threads to a picture that does makes sense, not realizing that the bigger picture is already perfect.
Toward the end of Passion Blue (at least the draft I read) one of the nuns tells Guilia: “there is always sacrifice, you always have to give something up”. And I’m wondering if that is the free will. What do you give up, to obtain the freedom to live expansively within your fate. I’m thinking that ultimately what you give up is the idea that you have anything to give up–that free will and fate are anything different at all.
People want what they can’t have. I can’t speak for cave person days, but I can speak for early US history days. I used to live in a house that was built in the early seventeen hundreds, which for the United States, is early indeed. It was built fifty years before the United States was the United States.
In the Great Room of my former house, the original walls were finished with twenty inch wide panels of chestnut board, feather edged so they fit together hiding the seam, and planed smooth by hand. Today we would drool at such boards, and they would be worth a great deal of money in their patinated chestnut state. However, in the seventeen hundreds, chestnut trees grew large and freely. Their lumber was the workhorse of the building trade. Paneling a room in chestnut boards wasn’t a statement of status.
But painting them was. In early eighteenth century colonial America, paint–since it was not necessary for survival–was an indulgence. A painted wall was a statement of well-to-do-ness. And so the feather-edged chestnut walls in my eighteenth century house were painted a popular color called Prussian Blue. To my modern eyes, the painted walls were a god-awful color—a faded electric blue that in no way reminded me of the softened past. Hard to fathom that in the time, this color was the height of fashion. But it was. And in great part because it wasn’t easy to come by.
So paper books are not in danger of becoming extinct. Just as soon as having a printed paper book becomes hard to come by, having one will be desirable. Desire creates markets. Markets need products.
Tastes change, but the human quirk of wanting what is scarce will never change.