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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Monday, June 19, 2006 5:04 pm
I’m Not Worthy! I’m Not Worthy!
Posted by: Keir Graff

As a book reviewer, I write my reviews with what I hope is a voice of authority. Not because I’m always certain that my opinion is the one the whole world should share (I feel that way maybe every other review), but because, having formed my opinion, I won’t be doing anyone any favors by second-guessing myself in print (I save that for this blog).

And, truthfully, most of the books I review are easily mastered, and they follow familiar patterns, so it’s easy to evaluate them in comparison to other similar works. With experience, the Voice of Authority naturally creeps into the reviews, and that’s fine, because most of the time I feel authoritative.

But some books are different. I finished Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker last week. It’s a remarkable book, and reading it was an experience all book lovers crave. It was absorbing, challenging, entertaining, and enlightening. I felt alternately uplifted and depressed. I often felt frustrated – because my bus arrived at my stop and I had to stop reading.

Powers is such a brilliant writer that he makes me wonder whether I’m equal to the task of reviewing him. I’m not talking about whether or not I understand his book. I do. But how do I convey even a trace of his depth and complexity in a mere 200 words?

Worse – and I’m sure every reviewer has had this thought on occasion, when confronted with a work of such imagination and ability – how do I dare pass judgment on The Echo Maker? Even if comparing books and reviews is like comparing meals and menus, there’s no doubt about it: Powers is a better writer than I’ll ever be.

Obviously, ability or success in any field of endeavor is not necessarily a prerequisite to judging it. Many restaurant critics, play-by-play men, and screenwriting teachers have never achieved any meaningful results with a knife, bat, or word processor. And many who can do these things well can’t describe them very well. So it’s not like I question the role or existence of reviewers. Making useful recommendations to other fans is, well, useful.

But it’s good to feel humbled once in awhile. It’s important to remember that sitting at the judges’ table is not the same thing as standing on the awards podium. (Like that? I have more sports metaphors in my gym bag.) To not confuse authority with ability. Most of all, to not become jaded.

In fact, in the making-lemons-into-lemonade department, I probably do my job better when I am sometimes confronted with such a paragon of the craft that I feel, for a moment, unworthy. The thrill of discovering a great book reminds me why I’m doing this in the first place, and the moment of uncertainty reminds me of my own modest role in the whole enterprise.

I sure hope the next book is something really lame that I can trash.

(Kidding, people, kidding. I hope the next book is even better.)

Comments

comments

5 Responses to “I’m Not Worthy! I’m Not Worthy!”
  1. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Five Minutes a Day Says:

    [...] I spent so long reading Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker that I’ve gotten a little bit behind in my reading. True, we’re in the middle of what we call a “long writing period” – extra time built into the production schedule in order to accommodate events like ALA’s Annual Conference – and so my next deadline isn’t until early July, but still, deadline surfing is dangerous when it comes to book-reviewing. It’s only possible to cram so many pages of reading into one night. [...]

  2. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Of Mastery and Masterpieces Says:

    [...] Having recently written one of the most positive reviews I’ve ever written, for Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, I suddenly found myself writing yet another incredibly positive review, for The Road. Obviously I can’t diminish my praise for one book just because I recently heaped praise on another, but when a situation like this arises I can’t help but wonder whether I’m getting carried away. [...]

  3. Don Says:

    The Echo Maker has some good writing and some excellent ideas (I am a neuropsychologist) by a very smart man, but it is not a very good novel: too long, too thinly linked together, rather puerile character development.

  4. Keir Says:

    Don, you have me at a disadvantage. While a neuropsychologist is also undoubtedly qualified to comment on literary fiction, a book reviewer is not necessarily qualified to comment on neuropsychology. Still, I liked both the story and the science in The Echo Maker. I will be sure to forward your comment to the good folks at the National Book Foundation.

  5. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Of Mastery and Masterpieces Says:

    [...] Having recently written one of the most positive reviews I’ve ever written, for Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, I suddenly found myself writing yet another incredibly positive review, for The Road. Obviously I can’t diminish my praise for one book just because I recently heaped praise on another, but when a situation like this arises I can’t help but wonder whether I’m getting carried away. [...]


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