Earlier this month, I read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a copy from the library, and as I reached the last chapter, I went to the bookstore and bought a copy for myself because I was going to want to reread parts of it and ponder them. I’ve been referring to the book in conversations—unusual, since I rarely talk about politics. I’m analyzing current events in light of Haidt’s six Moral Foundations. Filled with enthusiasm, I gave The Righteous Mind 5 stars on Goodreads and LibraryThing. It wasn’t perfect, but when a book hooks me and gives me ideas to wrestle with, I figure that cancels out some of its faults and I rate accordingly. And I would’ve loved to have accompanied those ratings with an engaging review, but the words refused to come.
This isn’t the only book I’ve had this sort of problem with. I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain back in February. I still haven’t been able to say more about than I really, really liked it, and that’s not a book review, that’s a tweet. (I really, really liked Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.: only 103 characters.) It’s not that I want to review every book I read, even every 5-star book, but when I do want to, I want to be able to do so.
So here I am, distracting myself from the frustration of not being able to say why I love a book by trying to figure out why I can’t. Ironically and irritatingly, it’s usually easy to say exactly why I didn’t like a book. Indeed, most of my efforts go into trying to keep a negative review cool and dispassionate. Since I’m writing a negative review is because I Did Not Like the book, an emotional reaction that is usually passionate as all get-out, this is a challenge. I try to explain that no, I didn’t like the book, but here’s why, hoping that readers will agree that these are good reasons to criticize a book, even if they disagree that those reasons apply to the book in question.
I think the answer lies in that classic phrase “lost in a good book.” I cannot lose myself in a “bad” book. It fails to pull me into its spell. I stand apart from it, keeping a safe psychological distance from it, and that distance is the space I need to review the book. I can list exactly what it was I didn’t like about it because I’m not within it. Most books aren’t purely loved or loathed, and for a mixed review, a bit of space lets me name what I liked as well as what I disagreed with.
The more I like a book, the more I merge with it to some degree. I’m sure that when I was younger, I could only become completely absorbed in a novel. Nowadays, I can lose myself in nonfiction as well. I may not agree with the ideas, but even while wrangling with a concept or an argument, I stay merged with the book. Lovely though that is—it’s that special thrill, the hook that leads me to bump a rating upwards—it leaves me unable to discuss the book as a whole, except in the most general way (“I loved this book!”). I’d rather enjoy the book and not be able to tell you about it than vice versa, but ye gods, this is frustrating!
Oh, and you should read The Righteous Mind. And Quiet. Just don’t ask me why.