For people looking to read something new, book reviews can be immensely useful.
They can point you to books that you haven’t heard of. They can give you quotes from or summarize the contents of some such book. They can share whether you’re likely to get value out of it. And in doing all this, they can save you time, energy, and money.
However, reviews can just as easily be an enormous drain of these things—even if the reviewer is honest about both the contents of the book and his evaluation of it.
This is because you can spend so much time reading reviews that you never actually get to the books. It’s also because you can get so caught up in different reviewer’s evaluations that you forget that it doesn’t matter what other people think of a book; what matters is whether you yourself will gain something meaningful from it.
To get use out of book reviews then you need something more than just time to read them. What you need is an understanding of (and a few tips on) how to read a book review—which is exactly what this post shares.
Having a very clear grasp of what you like—in terms of both style and content—is the first and most important part of reading a book review well.
In this sense you can think of a review like a guidebook for some adventure.
Like that, a review’s not the thing itself that you are going to experience, it’s just offering you different snapshots and perhaps a panoramic view of what’s waiting for you if you choose to read the book.
Now such a guidebook can be good or bad depending on whether what it says and shows is true. But it is not going to be very useful to you as a guide if you have no clue where you want to end up.
So knowing that, along with how you like to get there, is as crucial as it is perhaps blindingly obvious.
Unfortunately, however simple to do and however great the benefits in helping to find new books that they will value, many people don’t take the time to consciously identify the specific reasons that they like what they do.
Today, in the rush to do everything faster, many people finish a book with only a vague sense of why they liked it, and then move on to something else as quickly.
This is as sad as it is unnecessary and I urge you to not be one of those poor souls who anticipates books too little, who reads them too fast, and who ignores them ever after.
If you do the above, you’re missing out on most of the value that books have to offer and no review in the world will be of much use to you.
So take some time after reading a book to really think about why you enjoyed it or found it enlightening.
Think about what kind of author you like to listen to—or, put differently, how you like them to write.
With novels in particular, go deeper than the specific background, time period, or occupation of characters. Focus on what it was about the challenges of the characters, the struggle they went through, and the choices they had to make that kept you engaged.
When you have done this, you are ready to profit from a review by simply comparing quotes from the book and notes by the reviewer on it to what you like and are looking for.
This can be really easy if you are reading a well-written and trustworthy review.
But it nevertheless requires you to slow down and ask whether the basic situation of a story is one that has interested you before and is likely to interest you again or if the style of writing is such that you’ll be able to stick with the author until the end of his story (or presentation).
It also requires you to be more of an active or purposeful reader. When you come to a review with a clear grasp of what you like in many areas, you should be reading it like a man who knows what gold is and is expertly prospecting for it.
In this sense, every line a reviewer shares by the author is important.
Some or many of these may strike you as dull, as obviously not gold. But you may also see a sparkle in other lines, something shiny and appealing that could be gold—the type of line that hints at or exemplifies the stylized characters and gripping plots that you love in novels or the useful tips and startling integrations that you love in books.
I was actually going to do a whole post on this issue after the news of how many fake reviews there are, but unless you know the person, the answer is a very short one.
You should pay very little attention to any evaluation unsupported by facts.
That means to pass over all those 5-star reviews on Amazon without much more substance than “This was the best book ever!” Forget about ‘em. And don’t let them influence what you do.
It also means to pass over all those 1-star reviews without much more substance than “This was the worst book ever!” Pretend these didn’t exist as well.
And don’t even try to take an average of such opinions and think you’ll end up with a reasonable view of the book.
The only thing an average of conflicting opinions gives you is the view of a book from nobody in particular based on completely different standards—only some and maybe none of which are yours.
So put aside evaluations not based on any facts that you can view independently and judge according to your own standards, those you bring to a book review.
Look for quotes in the review that show you how the author writes, how the author’s characters speak, or what kind of conclusions the author himself comes to.
Look for notes in the review on the basic situation of a book or the method of the author in building up his story or the other books that this one is like.
Then, when you find a book that looks like it’s going to be gold, stop reading reviews, go to the source, and read the book for yourself. That, after all, is the point of reading reviews and reading them well.
It is also the reward.
And if you put in the time and mental effort to doing the above, it will be a reward that pays for itself many times over and that you will have justly deserved.