What can you say about a book that will actually make someone want to read it?
A couple of days ago I was asked what I thought of a “10 Best Books of 2010” list from the New York Times.
The list of books and the supporting blurbs both made me sad. Can you imagine the reviewers whose biggest thrills in a year of reading were a rehash of some old books of William Trevor stories and a collection of words to show tunes (and not even cool show tunes by Cole Porter or Gershwin)? How drab and dreary their lives must be. It’s as though their list of the best albums of the year were dominated by the latest Tom Petty and Bruc Springsteen records, along with a bunch of covers by Peter Gabriel–you’d know something had gone terribly wrong, either with music or with reviewers.
But I really wanted to talk about the blurbs, because they made me think about how to recommend books. Reading this endorsement of the Franzen book actually made me less likely to read the book:
…a vividly realized narrative set during the Bush years, when the creedal legacy of “personal liberties” assumed new and sometimes ominous proportions. Franzen captures this through the tribulations of a Midwestern family, the Berglunds, whose successes, failures and appetite for self-invention reflect the larger story of millennial America
“Creedal”? Must we really?
In his Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon mounts a defense of reading for pleasure, and I increasingly wonder what other kind of worthwhile reading there is. Technical manuals, I suppose. I assume that the reviewer got some pleasure from Freedom, and I wonder what it was; the pleasure of seeing a creedal legacy illustrated is a bit hard for me to picture.
So I guess that’s what I usually hope to express in talking about a book I like: what kind of pleasure it gave me and why. Not that that’s easy, but it is at least in the other direction from saying, as some reviewers do, that this or that book is “required reading.” Kiss of death.
One method that probably wasn’t available to the NYT blurbists is quotation. I’m currently nearing the end of The Book of Evidence by John Banville, and I imagine that you will like the book if and only if the following appeal to you. The evil but amusing narrator describes his father:
He was a slight, neatly-made man with pale eyebrows and pale eyes, and a small, fair moustache and was faintly indecent, like a bit of body-fur, soft and downy, that had found its way inadvertently onto his face from some other, secret part of his person.
We went into the kitchen. It looked like the lair of some large scavenging creature…The toes of three or four pairs of shoes peeped out from under a cupboard, an unnerving sight, as if the wearers might be huddled together in there, stubby arms clasped around each other’s hunched shoulders.
That said, my favorite blurb says pretty much nothing about the book itself. Dylan Thomas described Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds as “just the book to give your sister, if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy sort of a girl.”
So please tell me, can you think of a recommendation or blurb that made you think “I really have to read that book!”?