Saturday, 13 October 2007

Perceived Readership

Or 'Why I don't usually post book reviews'.

I read a fair number of books, and both students I work with & other friends know well that I'm ready to advise on books at the drop of a hat (or, more conventionally, a request or when helpful). Yet I don't blog book reviews. I keep a rolling list of what I'm reading & have read on the blog, so you can always note that and ask me about it, but I don't blog book reviews.

This is because of perceived readership. When I advise a friend, a CU member or a relative, I know something of the context. Something of their background, their theology, how given they are to reading, what they enjoy, what they've been challenged by lately, and what challenges possibly face them. I can think of the book which would help, and why. I know of plenty of other titles which are marvellous, Biblical, helpful books but would not particularly help them at this present time. That is, I know to a fair degree of certainty that I can serve them well: above all, I can interact with them and work out which book will serve them best in the gospel.

In writing a review on a blog, however, I have no idea of readership. Therefore to accurately serve the Church (in the persons of my readership), I would have to put in so much explanation and so many caveats, that I get tired even thinking of it. Hence I don't post book reviews.

The one time I took exception to this went to prove the point: I posted some thoughts on a couple of books, including one 'Total Church'. I say, 'some thoughts' deliberately - they were hardly comprehensive reviews. Overall, I recommended the books, though for Total Church I possibly noted more by way of caveat than I did actual positive comment: very aware of the readership issue. I received some helpful interaction from one of the authors in the comments, and corrected / clarified a line of my post. When a friend in another local church mentioned the book with me rather critically, I was again reminded of how people in different situations read a book's emphasis differently (that is, of course, the value of interpretation in global, inter-generational, cross-cultural community - namely, the Church). She had been discussing it with church apprentices. Next I knew, one of them was telling me they'd analysed my 'review' of the book! Which just makes me more reluctant than ever to post thoughts on books I've read to the generic public domain. Now, if I'd been asked to join them in energetically analysing and interacting with the ideas in this book in person, that would be a different matter altogether!

There is a 'postmodern' reluctance to be judged by what we've put in print which is suspect. There is a 'postmodern' sickeningly-common cry of 'You haven't read him (w)right!' rather than engaging in discussion on the text in question.
There is a 'postmodern' doubt about being able to communicate at all, given our different frameworks of interpretation, and different ideological pre-commitments.

Yet because there is a living, true and self-revealing God who has chosen to interpret his acts to us in the medium of language, and because we are made in his image, I uphold that we can faithfully communicate and interpret. The postmodern mind more readily recognises the effects of sin in marring this: bringing doubt, confusion, and frustration in communication - both from the speaker and the hearer. (More readily, that is, than the modern mind - to ultra-generalise - which tended to think 'scientific', 'rational' means of analysis could overcome any problems, of communication or otherwise.) Yet the perversion of sin does not make communication utterly impossible or irredeemable. There is frustration, power play, domination, lies, deceit, and everything else found in Genesis 3. But there remains a living, true and speaking God who has not completely withdrawn his grace from the world and works redemptively throughout history.

Hence I will not cease from all attempts at communication (to the despair of some, no doubt), nor will I cease from recommending and discussing books. But I will be extremely reluctant to post book reviews generically, unless God gives me a lot of energy to note background, context, and many caveats, for a diverse readership.


Dave K said...

Well made point. I couldn't agree more.

mama said...

You may be right, but I'm glad book reviews are published in other places, because one meets many a good book that way. A reviewer can never know for whom s/he is writing, nor a preacher for whom he is preparing a sermon, but the Lord makes use of the humble efforts of his servants to communicate with each other.

étrangère said...

Indeed. And the observant will note that I do link to The Discerning Reader site, which offers reviews from a generally reformed perspective.

jjh said...

As someone who doesn't know you but just finished reading Tobias Jone's "Utopian Dreams" because of your book review I think this is a bit sad.

Of course some incomplete thoughts on a blog are no substitute for specific recommendations to a situation you know well or a formal, carefully thought out book review.

Surely, it is possible for people to differentiate between a personal blog post that openly states "thoughts in progress" from a carefully worded press release of an organization. The latter it would be quite right to hold the organization/person to careful account for its content, to ask the same from the former seems ridiculous.