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The process of book reviewing can sometimes seem like a production line. A new book comes out and every newspaper, magazine and website rushes to review it. But is this approach to book reviewing fundamentally flawed? In this article, Thomas Chadwick makes the argument for the time and space needed to properly read and review a book, and suggests a more complete method of reviewing.
Reading a book takes time.
It takes around a minute to read a single page of fiction. Starting at the top of the page and finishing at the bottom, passing your eye from word to word without missing out small words or skipping long, complicated-looking ones, and with absolutely no looking off into next door’s window, takes about a minute. I know this because I have just read eight separate pages from eight different books and timed how long it took me to read each. The average time taken was one minute 7.86 seconds. Only one book — The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, with bizarrely big type — took less than a minute to read at a pacey 57.49 seconds; the longest page belonged to Anna Karenina, setting me back a full minute and 17.09 seconds. But generally, extrapolating from this small (and strangely Russian) sample, it would seem that it takes about a minute to read a page of fiction.
Armed with this fact, we can then safely calculate that it would take 439.02 minutes to read the average book (which is 388.17 pages long), equating to seven hours and eighteen minutes of fiction. Clearly, some novels can be dealt with a good deal faster: The Crying of Lot 49 could be wolfed down in a rapid two hours and 23 minutes; and of course there are those that take considerably longer than our average. Dear old Anna Karenina clocks in at a stonking seventeen hours and twenty-one minutes — or what, given time to sleep, might safely be described as one solid day’s reading.
Now, these (ahem) “scientifically proven” reading times represent the shortest possible time it could take to read every word in a work of fiction — that is, to read it from cover to cover without pausing once to look into the sky, or breaking off to visit the bathroom, eat, update your status on Facebook, etc. Even for those rare souls who do have seventeen-hour-plus windows of uninterrupted time in which to read 800-page novels, it would seem unlikely that anyone could maintain that level of sustained reading concentration without seriously damaging both their retinas and their sofa covers.
In reality then, this seven-hour average is going to be spread over several days. An hour a day might be something of a goal, half an hour might be realistic; and even if there are moments when you find yourself lying in bed, with the side light on, weeping silent tears onto the last page as the clock reads 2:04 a.m., there will also be times when a work commitment or a lengthy “personal” call from an energy supplier will see reading time slip through the cracks entirely.
That it takes a long time to read a book is no doubt painfully obvious. My point here is simply to draw attention to it again and lend support to the advocates of close reading and re-reading, and more importantly: to rethink what this means for the way we review books.
Reading a book requires space.
As twenty-first century hobbies go, the rewards of reading are just about the least immediate. Reading is not like eating a meal where all you have to do is insert bite-sized chunks of text until you are full. Instead, fiction requires the reader to absorb all those chunks into a bigger and more complex picture.
Vladimir Nabokov explains the unique pleasure of receiving your art through words by comparing the art of literature with the art of painting. When looking at a painting it is totally possible to look at brushstrokes, pigment choices, flourish, flair — but, if the viewer of a painting ever wants to see the total effect, all they need do is literally take a step back.
With fiction this is simply not possible. As Nabokov explains, “We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture.” According to him, though, this is not something to be upset about. As human beings we are blessed with a metaphysical eye: a mind which, if fed a diet of sentences, can see the whole; a brain which, if it stares at page after page of Anna Karenina, will one day join all the little dots of plot and character to a point where the book finally releases its full impact.
Taking that metaphysical step back requires both time and space. For Nabokov, the metaphysical bigger picture is reached not by reading but by re-reading: “A good reader,” he says, “is a re-reader”. For him the first reading of a piece of fiction is simply an introduction to it. From this simple conclusion a powerful argument emerges: that the human mind is only able to deal with fiction if it is allowed both the time to read, as well as the metaphysical space to process and reflect on that reading, to join all those metaphysical dots and take that great leap backwards.
Again, you probably already know this, but I do think it bears repeating. Literature, as opposed to many other twenty-first century art forms, demands space for reflection, space that, in the face of the demands of the industry, is not generally given by either publishers or reviewers.
Point-of-publication “reviews” can’t actually review the book.
Commercial demands seem to be increasingly turning a book’s very publication into an “event”. When a book is published, reviews are churned out by leading newspapers, and the writer gives readings and interviews. If the novelist has previously written a string of successful books, it might make the ten o’clock news, and there will be a lot of activity on Facebook and twitter. But there is something slightly incongruous about the clamour surrounding the arrival of a book, considering its something whose charms can only be accessed by sitting very quietly on your own for hours.
The 1996 publication of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace was such an event. As publications go, it was a big one — there was a publication party in an actual bar, which was actually full. There were also many “reviews” written at the point of publication. Later David Foster Wallace wrote in a letter to Don DeLillo that “for about a week there it seemed to me that this book became the Most Photographed Barn, everyone tremendously excited over the tremendous excitement surrounding a book that takes over a month of hard labour to read.”
The barn mentioned by David Foster Wallace is from a 1986 novel by Don DeLillo called White Noise. The scene involves the narrator, a Nazi studies professor called Jack Gladney, being driven to the most photographed barn in America. The passage, which takes up barely a page and a half, makes the point that in DeLillo’s America the barn itself has been overtaken by its status as the most photographed barn in America. As Jack’s companion explains, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
It is a very neatly made point, but a fleeting one. The barn is just one bite-sized chunk in White Noise’s bigger picture: Jack Gladney’s struggle to overcome his fear of death in the postmodern world. Yet in the years since White Noise’s publication, the barn has fallen victim to the very tendency it was satirising. The “barn scene” has become one of the most talked about in postmodern fiction. I have had actual conversations about the barn with people who have not read a single word of White Noise but who know, all the same, that they need to bunny-ear their fingers every time they say the word “barn”.
Infinite Jest’s case is extreme. Yet its treatment does draw attention to my points about the time and space required for a really good and complete review. To read Infinite Jest does take one month. To read it twice takes another month. To really start joining those metaphysical dots takes a third. What’s more, those three months cannot follow sequentially — you’d inevitably start to shed friends but also, crucially, not be able to begin the process of stepping back.
A new kind of review?
What I am positing is a third space for the book review that sits between the point-of-publication reviews and the academic analyses that come later still. These reviews could offer a slightly different service to the general reader of fiction: seeking not to promote or to recommend which books are worth buying/reading, but to remind readers of their worth and to discuss their various elements for a richer experience. Yes, this already happens for some books, but they tend to be the “big” books that have universally proven themselves to be classics. What about the rest of them?
This is a different breed of reviews I am suggesting. They would turn to books once the furore of publication has died down; and perhaps they don’t have to worry about “spoiler alerts”. Their concern would be that the everyday reader of fiction recalls those books they have read months or years before; they would be unconcerned with whether an author has or has not “done it again”, and instead deal with the only question that ever needs to be asked of a work of fiction in itself: whether, once the lights have been turned off, the paper cups tidied away and all the bunting rolled up and carted off to some event on the other side of town, there is anything left behind for the reader that might still glimmer.