Some months ago I came across a book about studying Hindi in India, and I immediately snatched it from the shelf in my local bookstore. This was my cup of tea—living and studying in India and loving every challenging minute of it. I kept the book on a table near my desk until I could settle down and devote an uninterrupted stretch of time to it. This title looked so good I was willing to wait. I liked seeing it there and anticipating the pleasure I would have when I could begin reading it properly—on a quiet Sunday afternoon without interruption. Soon thereafter I came across a review of it in one of the larger newspapers. And it wasn’t good.
The review cast a pall over my enthusiasm, and I remember in particular the reviewer’s intense dislike of a particular scene in the book that seemed, for him, to summarize all the negative points of the story and its author. The shimmering green of the cover seemed to fade, and now its placement at the top of my TBR pile (to be read) seemed a reproach rather than a promise. I put off reading it and went on to other things.
But I am a Yankee born and raised and I had spent good money on that book. It was time to read it and, if nothing else, get my money’s worth. Dutifully, I picked it up and began. And I am so glad I did. Katherine Russell Rich has written an entrancing and enchanting book about moving to India to learn Hindi. Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language is everything I look for in books about India, one of the great loves of my life, and I’m glad to recommend it to anyone interested in India, learning a second language, how the mind works with languages, writing a memoir, and any number of other topics. But here I want to focus on another lesson—that of the responsible reviewer.
As I became more and more engrossed in the memoir, I occasionally wondered when I’d come across the scene that had so upset the reviewer, and was curious to know if my take would be so very different. I read on, forgot about it, remembered it, read on. When I began to think I had mixed up the review from another book with this one, I finally came to the scene that had earned the reviewer’s scorn—somewhere near the very end of the story. And it wasn’t a scene at all; it was a brief comment about an incident that happened after the main narrative of the book. That made me pause.
The negative review that almost kept me from reading this book, and might well have kept me from purchasing it if I had read it before I discovered the title in the bookstore, bore no resemblance to the narrative I enjoyed so thoroughly. This is exactly the kind of review that brings reviewers as a group and reviewing as a professional a bad rep. It also prevents readers from finding books they will love and learn from.
This isn’t an essay on the ten characteristics of the responsible reviewer. It is a reminder to all of us who review books to stick to the book as a whole, keep the big picture in the forefront of our imaginations as we write, and make sure our review bears a close resemblance to the book we’ve just read. Take note of your jealousies (yes, I wish I’d written this book), ignorances (the information on language learning was an eye-opener for me), and all the other ways we hobble ourselves. And if you really don’t like a book, don’t review it.