Critical Mass

The Shared Solitude of Reading

By Richard Price

The National Book Critics Circle has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviewing. This post is part of the campaign's blog series, which features posts by concerned writers, op-eds, Q and As, and tips about how you can get involved to make sure those same owners and editors know that book sections and book culture matter. We recently asked four-time NBCC finalist Richard Powers if he could share with us his thoughts on what function reviews serve in our society today, and how they can do it better. Here is his response:

PEOPLE PROBABLY HAVE as many reasons for reading literary reviews as they have for reading literary novels. For me, narrative is values in collision – commitment and confusion and crisis unfolding over time. In a great story, we are challenged to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Any attempt to interpret the world puts a character’s – and consequently a reader’s – values on the line and leaves them up for grabs. The best kind of readers, like the best kind of literary characters, are not the same people coming out of the story as they were going in.

So my favorite kind of reviewing doesn’t stand apart and judge that narrative process; it takes part in it and extends the web of relations between values and facts that the book itself explores. The breathtaking and beautiful review reveals its own meta-narrative: here’s who I, the reviewer, am in the presence of this book, and here’s what happened to me as these characters made and unmade themselves. The reviewer becomes yet another character in the contested collisions that narrative unfolds. I know a good review – whether I’ve read the book under review or not – when I finish the review thinking about the world differently than when I began it. A good novel makes me a more robust character in my own life. A good review makes me a better reader of my own and others’ narratives.

The problem is, changing technology invariably produces its own head-on collision of values. The cost of conveying information has plummeted, and we are converging on that moment when everyone will be able to know what anyone else thinks about anything at any given moment. Ideally, I think this is great: it’s the logical extension of the promise implicit in that ancient and most destabilizing of technologies, writing. The complication, of course, is that noise and signal both become cheaper at the same rate, and the novels and reviews that are most capable of making me a better reader may well become harder to find, even as they become more numerous and more thoughtful and more robust. We are in danger of drowning in an ocean of liking or disliking.

I honestly don’t think our crisis is print reviews versus blogs, specialization versus populism, or even the exclusivity of the elite versus the tyranny of the majority. I think our crisis is instant evaluation versus expansive engagement, real time versus reflective time, commodity versus community, product versus process. Substituting a user’s rating for a reader’s rearrangement threatens to turn literature into a lawn ornament. What we need from reviewers in any medium are guides to how to live actively inside a story.

Reading is solitary; reviewing is the shared solitude of reading. As throughput accelerates and the cost of information falls, engaged seclusion and slow reflection become more valuable. Changes in technology change the terms of this contest, but not the stakes. Like any good crisis, this one can only be resolved through narrative – the turbulent act of figuring out how to read what’s writing us.

Here’s Roberto Calasso, in Literature and the Gods:

In the delirium of their love affair with the microchip, people insist on asking tedious questions about the survival of the printed word, while the truly extraordinary phenomenon that is everywhere before us is never even mentioned: the vertiginous and unprecedented concentration of power that has gathered and is gathering in the pure act of reading.

Richard Powers