The short answer is yes. Yes, you are a completely valid reader without going all out to recommend books or talk about them. So if you were looking just for the answer to this question, this is it. However, you might want to stay for the rest of this (you’ve already opened the article so why not read it?).
I was just discussing with a friend about our need to tell other people about what we read, the need to better understand the books we read by hearing other people’s opinions and to make sure that the books we love so much reach as many people as possible. I love doing all of those and I really found myself wanting to write a review because what a better time to do that than when you should be revising for exams? But I am currently reading Marx’s Grundrisse and that guy really hated his readers’ sanity (but we still ended up loving him xoxo Marx) and Aragon’s Le Monde réel and both of those are going to take a while until I finish and decide if I should review them. So let’s not talk about a specific book, but about reading in general.
Why do we talk about books and why don’t we do it enough?
By my own observation (no data to back this up, sorry) people usually see themselves as either fully-equipped-book-people and will end up in a conversation about reading 90% of the time or just-not-book-people. And sadly, just-not-book-people are a lot of the time people that feel they are not fully-equipped-book-people enough to actually go out there (this is a very fluid concept, it could mean the internet as I do or just to a friend that is always ready for some book talk) and say what they think. What if they’re wrong? What if they didn’t get that very subtle hint on page 98 and their understanding of the book is miserable because of it? What if they liked a book that is generally considered a terrible book?
Honestly, we won’t really care. I spend too much time on YouTube listening to reviews of books I might not even care about. I love Antastesia, who mostly reviews classics and I read those maybe 5% of the time; I adore paperbackdreams, who reads books I don’t intend to read and I am a big fan of 4fără15 or Nabolita who have content that is most suitable for my literary tastes. I do watch these people for book recommendations sometimes, but most of the time I do it just because it’s so much fun to hear people so passionate about books, for me it is a fascinating crossover of two things I love so much: humanity and books.
More than this, I feel like I always deepen my understanding of a book by hearing other people talking about it and I understand my own position better by writing about it. Before I write a review for a book and even if I don’t intend to write one, I go all over the internet looking for reviews, watching vlogs and even reading professional literary critique because yeah, that still exists. My reading experience doesn’t end when I finish the book and it would be so much poorer if I didn’t have this many opportunities to understand other perspectives. And while the internet is so cool for that, organic human-to-human interaction remains my favourite way of doing this and some of the most valuable and original takes I’ve ever heard about certain books came from people who read no more than a few books every year. And that’s probably because they weren’t bound by all these artificial criteria I might have unintentionally developed just by reading too much for my own good.
So yeah, it’s fine if you don’t feel like talking too much about what you read, but remember we’d love to hear from you! Feel free to message me about a book, leave a comment, write a review even if you don’t usually do that or just contradict me, I might be totally and foolishly wrong.
I’m not usually a Grinch, but it seems that I’ve just decided to write a not-so-good review to a book I thought I’d love. This is your warning, if you don’t need me ruining your Christmas with my rant about poorly written (female) characters and lack of depth, just go. But don’t forget to bookmark this for when you want to enjoy my (maybe) too subjective critique. There are some spoilers in the next part – though some uninteresting ones that don’t really spoil anything, but you might still want to stop reading here. (This is the second time I’m asking you to just go. Is this self-sabotage?)
I will start by saying I really enjoyed reading the book and thought the plot was generally captivating and at certain moments really smart. This is the story of a famous painting stolen/saved by a teenager from an explosion, solely because it was his mom’s favourite piece of art. She dies in the same explosion and the book revolves around Theodore Decker, her son, and his coming-of-age story.
I think that’s all I have to say about the positive aspects of this book. The story is a crucial consideration, dare I say the main one for most readers and this is why The Goldfinch has been repeatedly praised – by friends and press and librarians in any bookshop. For me, the amount of attention it received a couple of years ago when it was translated in my native language only made my expectations unnaturally high so it was bound to disappoint me. This is the list of things that bothered and annoyed me:
Ok, I said that the plot was generally good, but there’s something I have to say. Why is death almost the only event that makes the action move forward? The whole story is generated by the death of Theo’s mom and then all the novelties in his life come due to his dad’s death and, some time after that, his friend’s death. I agree that death is a natural part of life and it shouldn’t be totally avoided, but it seemed that it was overused. This made sure that any changes that happened were sudden and without a deeper meaning. It might be just Tartt’s favourite trick or a way of covering that she’s not very good at writing about how life usually looks like in more ordinary circumstances, but maybe she could try to diversify a bit.
What is wrong with those characters? At the beginning, I was really mad about the fact that there were no female characters that had any more attributes than those strictly necessary to hold the story together. Needless to say, the book is far from passing the Bechdel test. The depiction of non-Americans is also very superficial – they are just stereotypes. Even Boris, a mixed background character (mainly East-European), which is one of the main characters is portrayed only based on his background as an immigrant: strong accent, violent dad, reading Dostoyevsky as a teenager and dealing drugs and getting into the shadiest businesses as an adult. There’s always a condescending attitude towards anything that’s different from the American norm, be it Dutch, English or Ukrainian. In the end, I just realised that all the characters are badly written: Theo is defined by his obsessions with a painting and a girl, Andy is shy and weird, Hobie is the the nice, generous and forgiving man, Pippa is just amazing, but we don’t know anything about her apart from that – we get a hint that she’s a good listener at some point and that’s why she stands out from the other women, because she makes Theo feel important. Each character is just a couple of adjectives and there’s no hint they are actually complex human beings and not accessories to Theo’s life.
Does Tartt really think we’re stupid? I always felt that there was a bit of unnecessary explaining everywhere, like I was reading a first draft and that editing would take out all that babbling (which made the book so close to 1000 pages, when it didn’t really need more than half of that). The last chapter was too much for me. It’s just like an essay which explains everything, what we should take away from the story, what everything means, no flexibility allowed, no imagination required. It’s as if the writer thought that by the end of the 800 pages, no one would have the energy to think for themselves and reflect on the book. I probably would have been a lot more lenient if the ending left me in a better mood. But it didn’t and I cannot begin to understand why Tartt wouldn’t let her story have a new life in the perception of each of its readers, instead of having a plain general image that everyone shares, but nobody feels as they own it. Tartt blocked here the crucial conversation between the piece of art and its audience and this is probably the only thing all great books have. People might get over imperfect plots and characters, but they can’t get over the lack of connection.
All these being said, I must admit my hypocrisy – my criticism doesn’t change my enjoyment while reading the book. There are books that I enjoyed much less but gave better reviews. This is probably just my pedantry that makes me appreciate a great literary technique or deep psychological implications, even in the absence of a real story, while not being very excited at the sight of a good story which lacks everything else.
I really want to read the other books Donna Tartt wrote so as to see how these compare to The Goldfinch and decide if the issues I’ve discussed here are particular to this book or not.
Sorry for being that one negative person on your Facebook News Feed on Christmas, but how would you appreciate all the positive vibes out there without me?
I read this book as part of an anti-racist reading group in my college, but I find it hard to say this is a book about race. It is, indeed, a book about race, about graduate education, queerness, trauma, but most of all about the way all of these intersect so uniquely in Brandon Taylor’s writing.
His most prominent and articulate talent is the portrayal of emotion, by creating a sense of undeniable closeness between the reader and the characters. Wallace is gay, black, comes from Alabama and is part of a biochemistry PhD programme in a predominantly white university. This would be the so-called objective way of describing this book. But I’ve learned that objectivity is useless and Brandon Taylor’s craft is just another supporting argument.
Wallace is confined to a hermetically sealed world and the oxygen is running out. He’s used to being with himself, into his own mind, nodding or just ignoring everytime he’s attacked and nobody seems to muster up the courage to say something. It’s easier this way. People that love him don’t have to feel guilty for being cowards and he can just blame himself for putting up with this.
Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder, but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to. No one does. No one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That’s the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.
The graduate world is cruel, competitive and unforgivable, especially so when it is so easy to talk about the gay black man coming from an underprivileged environment, as they say. It is so easy to do that because then one doesn’t need to look at one’s faults, at one’s own unhappiness and desperation. Seeing him struggle is enough to feel better about oneself, so there’s the need of keeping him in that same position. When he feels like retorting, Wallace doesn’t. Even when he’s called a misogynist, a gay man (nobody really dares to talk about race, but everybody knows that’s what it boils down to) who thinks he can take all the spotlight away from the other oppressed groups. Maybe he doesn’t have enough oxygen left to counteract so he just sinks deeper in his own claustrophobic world. He can’t reach out and even if he did, who would be there to reach out to that would feel competent enough to help? That wouldn’t get terrified of being the chosen one? That wouldn’t feel the burden is too heavy? That’s what Wallace feels about himself: he’s a burden. So he says no to party invites and goes home. He says no to sailing with his friends and goes into the lab. It seems easier to be less involved than to feel unwanted.
The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgement. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.
When two such closed worlds collide, the pressure has a chance to either be relieved or to increase even more. Wallace and Miller, who can’t get over his internalised homophobia while starting to become vulnerable with Wallace, start a dance in which the two options alternate in an almost obsessive manner: the powerful impact, the eroticism that makes the tension go away for a short time, the increase of danger as they share their stories in a desperate attempt at an intimacy none of them is prepared for and then the inevitable parting, each of them alone with their own fears and insecurities. All the frustration is turned into erotic desire and it is unclear to say if this has the result of strengthening the fragile bond they share or if it ends up just building another barrier that keeps them from getting close.
It would be too much to give it up, to be alone in the dark, now that he has been with Miller in the dark. What he fears, though, and it’s a cold, glittering fear rising in him, is that now he’ll never be able to face the dark alone again. That he’ll always want this, seek this, once it’s lost to him.
This book is so compelling because it combines the talent of the writer (hard to believe this is just his debut novel) with the non-altered truth that doesn’t try to appeal to the white fragility of the potential readers. In an interview for The Guardian, Brandon Taylor said:
When white people and straight people would read my work, they would fail to see what was going on.Anyone who comes of age in this country and is not a straight white man automatically gets devalued. We’re made to feel like, ‘I’m not Dostoevsky. My story is small and niche.’ That it doesn’t have all the great drama of human life. Eventually, it was this matter of centering my own experiences and pursuing with a really intense focus and conviction the stuff that spoke to me. Because I could have written this book to be more sympathetic to the white gaze, but it would’ve been a worse book.
I needed to read this book. We need this book to be read. From academia to industry and to day-to-day interaction, a plethora of perspectives and experiences is shut off because we* don’t feel ready to hear them out or because we’re just too ignorant to even acknowledge them. We worry about our feelings because it’s easier to see that we’re not the only ones with feelings.
*By we I mean the general white population that lives according to an unnoticed whiteness which is seen as the norm. I use this word because racism is a collective issue and we need to start looking at it this way instead of just insisting that we’re too unique individuals to be included in such a group.
I’ve never been into crime fiction. This is not an excuse or an apology. This is a heads-up that I’m not going to tell you about how amazingly the crime(s) in this book are planned or described. Honestly, I don’t think I’m the right person to judge that. I haven’t killed anyone, have I? (Please understand that this is a rhetorical question so don’t go and look into my past, you might not find what you expect).
As I was saying, when I read a book I care too much about words and feelings and too little about the narrative. I am more into the theme than into the plot.
Nothing ImportantHappened Today was no exception. I liked that it was about suicide and the perfect serial killer. And I liked how more than half of the book was narrated as if there was no real action. Part of it was a manual for future serial killers, part of it was a quite detached description of the lives of the victims, and the rest was the actual plot, being there just because the other two parts needed an excuse to exist (or this might be just me looking for familiarity in an unfamiliar context – a crime fiction book).
The book it’s about a so-called cult put together by a mysterious passive killer that doesn’t actually kill anybody, they just convince their victims they have to commit suicide. And they kill themselves only because they don’t want to do it. That’s fucked up, isn’t it? I won’t go on spoiling it more for you, but I’ll just tell you that I looked into the perfect rope length I’d need if I wanted to hang myself.
But there’s one thing I really need to talk about. I suppose this book is supposed to be some kind of social critique, otherwise I don’t know why the narrator would go into so much ranting about the excessive use of social media, about the human disconnection and the sadness it involves. But most of the time I felt just like when I hear somebody that’s clearly trying to deny the advances in the society and technology by reliving their past. I thought we were over regretting the past and we could start building a present by embracing what’s changed. And a 2019 bestseller still doing that makes me a bit disappointed about the stage we reached.
I just think that this killer deserves some justice. If they really thought about such a clean way of killing, they probably were more complex than somebody that just doesn’t want to accept things change.
I’d say it’s a 6.5/10, a fine book to read when you don’t want to worry too much (it’s funny saying this about a book about hundreds of suicides), but don’t get too excited about it being a literary masterpiece. And I’m just fine with that: not everything needs to be a masterpiece so don’t worry if this book is going to be your guilty pleasure. We all know how those work.
As busy as I’ve been lately, I can’t miss the start of Women’s History Month. My reading list for this month is all-female, including among others George Eliot, Sandra Cisneros and Marina Tsvetaeva.
I first met Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche when I read Purple Hibiscus about seven years ago. I was 13 and I couldn’t really grasp the deeper meaning of the novel, but I could see that the world described was so different from my own. Nevertheless, I could understand the struggles and I could enjoy the little happy things. I couldn’t relate, but the words made me understand. And I think that is the power of Adiche’s storytelling.
I discovered her again, in Americanah. This time, knowing a lot more about race but also being aware of how little I actually know. Because race it’s not just about being racist or not. Not being racist doesn’t make me feel better about the world when racism still exists. It doesn’t help me escape my own privilege – I’m damn privileged and my only hope is that I can be the Special White Friend Adiche describes in her novel:
One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that one friend who you don’t have to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends do not only get it, but also have great bullshit detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and school while black people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they are white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card”. Nobody quite knows what this means.
And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it.
Americanah tells the story of a Nigerian woman that’s been living in America for 13 years and decides to move back in Nigeria. Thus, her life has three parts: before going to America, in America, and after leaving America. If you really want to think about the plot as being the most relevant bit of this book, it is a love story. For me, it wasn’t. The focus was never really on the love story itself or on Ifemelu’s (the main character) lover, Obinze. Only a few chapters are narrated from his perspective and they exist mainly for the plot and not to help to build the character. That can be a literary fault, indeed, but I didn’t really mind it. I didn’t need the drive you usually get from a love story to be mesmerized by Adiche’s great writing.
Being a book about love and about race, the most fascinating parts of it were when these two themes collide. We keep talking about race on a macrolevel i.e. race and society, but how does race affect the more intimate parts of our lives i.e. race and relationships?
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would’ve been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberals dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.
The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.
In America, Ifemelu starts writing an anonymous blog about her experiences and observations as a Non-American Black in America (NBA). Her voice is sharp and echoes in the minds of the readers that understand or want to understand, while the people that are still in denial about some race issues find her posts disturbing. The popularity of her blog makes her rapidly a must in any workshop and event about diversity in general and race in particular. But she soon finds out that she’s not invited there to speak her mind – people hate it when their ways are criticized. They just want a pat on the back and a you’re doing great, buddy.
The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change, but to leave people feeling good about themselves. (…) During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
Remember this whenever you feel proud of how far we’ve come. Whatever we do to reduce racism, there’s always a lot more before eradicating it, and that seems to be really far.
I cannot just leave you without quoting a description of Ifemelu’s love. Her love is, of course, a description of herself, as love allows us to be ourselves.
If she was considering coming back to Nigeria, then it meant she was no longer with the black American. But she might be bringing him with her; she was after all the kind of woman who would make a man easily uproot his life, the kind who, because she did not expect or ask for certainty, made a certain kind of sureness become possible. When she held his hand during their campus days, she would squeeze until both palms became slick with sweat, and she would say, teasing, “Just in case this is the last time we hold hands, let’s really hold hands. Because a motorcycle or a car can kill us now, or I might see the real man of my dreams down the street and leave you or you might see the real woman of your dreams and leave me.”
I can’t find the right ending line for this book review. Because, truth be told, I’m not nearly finished with it. I talked to all my friends about it for the last couple of days and there are still so many aspects I missed. Sometimes, when reading about discrimination, you tend to think that this is not about you; you’re great, you’re inclusive, you watch the way you speak and treat people and would never discriminate – is racism still a thing? Well, it clearly is, and this book is amazing because it makes you realize you are part of the problem so you need to be part of the solution.
I won’t say I was overly excited about reading this book. I’ll just say that I preordered it three months ago and when it finally arrived last week, I tried to finish the book I was reading as fast as I could (I still had time to write a review for it though) so I could immerse myself in the revolting and repugnant world of the Gilead.
My largest fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years. Most of the time, that is what it feels like here, far away from the war, in the still heart of the tornado. So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high voltage power line. We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.
As expected, the writer did answer to most of the questions that readers kept asking after the first book: what happened to Offred?how did the Gilead find its end? We know this now. The book’s definitely added to the storyline in quantity, but did it do anything else?
For me, The Testaments was nothing more than a young adult fiction book. It felt like that. In A Handmaid’s Tale, nobody really cared about the action (or at least I didn’t), because there were more important things at stake. The message itself mattered more than anything else and this is what I love in Atwood’s books. However, here the conspiracy and the thrill of the escape where the main focuses. Apart from some secondary characters working for the Mayday (about whom we don’t find out anything of importance), nobody in The Testaments is really driven by a belief in freedom. Not even Aunt Lydia, whose controversial attitude towards everything that’s going on (is she trying to destroy the Gilead only because she knows she might lose her power?) makes her seemingly noble actions not very inspiring.
Yes, I’m disappointed in this book, but I don’t think there’s something wrong with it. There was something wrong with my expectations of it. I wanted a manifesto, and I got just a book with a story and a plot and characters. I wanted this book to make me shout Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, but it just made me whisper it.
But there are some parts in it that are manifesto material. Feminism is still at the base of this book but it doesn’t make it to the reader as much as I’d expected it.
What my father was doing in there was said to be very important – the important things that men did, too important for females to meddle with because they had smaller brains that were incapable of thinking large thoughts, according to aunt Vidala, who taught us Religion. It would be like trying to teach a cat to crochet, said Aunt Estée, who taught us Crafts, and that would make us laugh, because how ridiculous! Cats didn’t even have fingers!
So men had something in their heads that was like fingers, only a sort of fingers girls did not have. And that explained everything, said Aunt Vidala, and we will have no more questions about it. Her mouth clicked shut, locking in the other words that might have been said. I knew there must be other words, for even the notion about the cats did not seem right. Cats did not want to crochet. And we were not cats.
What I really appreciated about this book was that it talked about more specific problems in our culture. In A Handmaid’s Tale, it’s been talked about equality and freedom in general, but The Testaments raises the issue of (sexual) abuse and of the lack of sexual education or a poorly taught sexual education that causes more damage than it helps.
Women are only one of the commodities – I hesitate to call them commodities, but when money is in the picture, such they are (…).
Women are not commodities (anymore), but do they still get treated as if they were?
Yes, I did start reading this book just because it seemed easy to read and I needed something to fill my 10-hour bus trip. I was right. It is such an easy book to read. But it is also such a difficult book to get over.
It’s a story told in the voice of a child. The innocent voice of a girl who cannot accept that bad exists in the world and is shocked to see it. She cannot accept that she’s been abandoned, that people really think that skin colour is a relevant way of assessing the value of a human being. She lives on love and happiness alone. Isn’t she the best human being out there?
Thinking she might’ve killed her mother and growing less and less happy with her tyrant father, she decides to leave and find the truth. And she finds it. Of course, she finds what happened to her mother, but that’s not the truth I’m talking about. The truth she finds is love, so many kinds of love, all contributing to her becoming herself, not being just another human built on the same pattern, fitting all the social constructs and never using their own minds.
We are so limited, you have to use the same word for loving Rosaleen as you do for loving Coke with peanuts. Isn’t that a shame we don’t have many more ways to say it?
The most important part of this book, for me, only takes two lines, but it is what makes it so important: it validates the need of change. Change is the only thing that makes world better (but it doesn’t mean it always manages to do so). Change.
‘We can’t think of changing our skin,’ he said. ‘Changing the world – that’s how we gotta think’.
This is not a literary masterpiece. And it doesn’t aim to be so. But it is a manifesto, a statement about the humanity and its most important attributes.
Actually, you can be bad at something…but if you love doing it, that will be enough.
The Secret Life of Bees is maybe the only book that I would describe as lovely and strong, sweet and powerful. It made me happy, it made me laugh and smile, but it never stopped making me believe in its message. It might be a book about racism, but the message trascends this particular case and it talks about the condition of human beings at any level, it talks about equality and liberty, using the metaphor of the bees. The bees do live according to a hierarchy, but what do you know about their secret life?
I’ve been told that this is the type of book I would read. Which is very accurate – I really was reading it back then so making this statement didn’t require to be a master of human psychic or logical deduction.
But it is true, it is my type of book. Mostly because I don’t have a type of books (or anything else, to be fair) that I like. I love books in general. So books about books are vent better. Writers come up with those all the time. But what about booksellers? They spend so much time around books. They must have something to say.
And Shaun Bythell really has a lot to say. About anybody and anything. He loves books and at times it might seem that he hates humans, but deep down he loves them. Otherwise he would just stop doing anything that isn’t just a way to get profit. He could just sell his books, like a normal boring bookseller and not bother doing anything to popularise reading. But he’s not doing that. He’s helping with the Wigtown Book Festival, founding the Random Book Club and writing a book in which he (indirectly) depicts the importance of books.
Isn’t that the best argument for his love for people? He knows that neither books or people are of any use by themselves. Books are just paper without readers. And people? People can exist without books, but that is such a sad and limited existence I’d rather ignore that possibility.
I hate comedy books or movies or anything that tries straightforwardly to be funny, without any deeper meaning (I’m very picky with my favourite stand-uppers too). Humour has to be unexpected, subtle or just purely sarcastic for me to actually enjoy it. And Bythell does a great job with that. He’s not particularly subtle, but he’s smart and able to see the most important aspects about his clients (by “important” I mean anything that can be made into a good joke or a witty remark).
Just a short excerpt of Bythell’s lovely misanthropy:
Three customers, when entering the shop, complained that they couldn’t see anything in the shop because it was so bright outside and their eyes had not adjusted. This is far from unusual and often explained in a tone suggesting that I am personally responsible for the involuntary reflex of the customer’s irises.
A customer came to the counter today and said, ‘I’ve looked under the W section of the fiction and I can’t find anything by Rider Haggard.’ I suggested that he had a look under the H section.
At 11 a.m. a customer came to the counter with a pile of railway books for her husband. As she was paying, she told me, ‘Never marry a railwayman’, as though this might be something I had seriously considered.
While I was repairing a broken shelf in the crime section, I overheard an elderly customer confusing E. L. James and M. R. James while discussing horror fiction with her friend. She is either going to be pleasantly surprised or deeply shocked when she gets home with the copy of Fifty Shades of Grey she bought.
But among all these observations, Blythell finds the chance to write about the relevant things for the publishing and bookselling industry:
The phenomenon of the best-seller in the publishing industry does not seem to translate into the same financial cash cow in the second-hand book industry. Perhaps people who buy into the best-seller concept will always buy their books new, to be on the crest of the wave as it breaks rather than the troughs behind it. Perhaps also because the Dan Browns and Tom Clancys of this world are published in such vast quantities that there is never any scarcity value in them for the dealer or the collector. What passes for a best-seller in the new book market is precisely the sort of book that will be a dog in the second-hand trade. Customers often fail to understand this and think that the first edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is worth a fortune, when in fact 12 millions of them were printed. As an author’s success and fame increase, so too will the size of the print runs of their successive books. Hence a first edition of Casino Royale (of which only 4728 first edition hardbacks were printed) will be worth considerably more than a copy of The Man with the Golden Gun, which had a first-edition, first-issue print run of 82000.
I won’t be able to go to the Wigtown Book Festival, but I’ll definitely take a weekend off to visit The Bookshop and I will keep an eye on the Facebook page to see if I caught Bythell’s attention. I’ll move books around, talk loudly and negotiate over the price of the books I want, only to leave without buying anything – that’s how much I want to be the subject of one of his posts.
I’m a fiction-lover. That’s what I thought and stated repeatedly my entire (reading) life. But now I start to worry that I don’t actually deserve to call myself that, as half of the books I’ve read this month are non-fiction and they’re not some textbooks I need for university. Am I getting old? Am I discovering something that I’ve failed to see for so long? My stubbornness to read mainly fiction has limited me for long enough – but now I’m free. To use Daniel Kahman’s terms, feeling fear and unfamiliarity towards reading non-fiction is just my System 1 reacting based on its biases, but my System 2 has managed to correctly analyse the situation I’m in and decide this is actually a very good thing.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is posing the questions of how people make choices and answering it by analysing how people think. The answer is that people don’t have an unitary way of thinking and there are two main decision makers in each of us. One goes with the flow, believes in intuition and never thinks twice about the choice, while the other one has to slow down and think it through very carefully. They are called System 1 and System 2, and despite how different each person is, this discussion is strikingly valid for all (or at least most of) the readers of the book.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is not your usual psychology for dummies. Yes, it is slightly more accessible that an academic text, but it is nowhere near an easy read and it sometimes can overcomplicate things by giving seemingly unnecessary information. But simply stating facts is not preferred because of two reasons:
Why would anybody just believe something written in a book? Yes, the book is written by Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize, so some people might argue that’s enough to believe anything he said. But that’s just your System 1 working and choosing to trust someone just because of an achievement that might or might not be relevant to the work in cause it’s not always the best thing to do. He won a Noble Prize in Economics, after all. The writer wants your System 2 working to understand your System 1 better – so he’s going for detailed information, sometimes lots of data and terms that you might not get to use in your everyday life, but which describe concepts you surely encounter (without noticing) at every step.
Stating is not useful for understanding and memorising. The point of the book is to change the way you make decisions by making your System 2 more awake during that process. But System 2 is that part of you that uses rationality to produce an answer in a relatively long time (compared to your impulsive System 1). So going quickly through a list of facts would just be the opposite of what System 2 needs.
However, not everybody sees things like this. There are people who love the book and think that it’s changed their life and there are people who find it’s just a failed attempt at popularising psychology and accuse the writer of not ever getting out of his bubble where statistics is common knowledge and graphs are the way people communicate information efficiently. The latter ones have a point and I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone, but this doesn’t change the fact that it is an amazing read for the former ones.
The best thing about the book is the interactivity. The reader is not a passive spectator. Most psychology books don’t work very well, because the reader can just say I’m not like this, I’m clearly an exception about anything that is different to what they think about themselves. Kahneman doesn’t allow you to do that. Before finding out the results of a test, you take the same test yourself. When the results are (not) surprisingly reflecting your own choices, there are only two possible conclusions:
Daniel Kahneman can read the minds of people he has never met;
You’re just a normal human being, raised in the same world with mainly the same feelings about money, health, winning and losing. And that’s not to say that you’re not special. You’re a highly unique human being. It’s just that you’re not special in your decision making i.e. most of the decisions you make are objectively wrong and subjectively debatable.
This is not to say you’re not a highly unique human being. It’s just that your decision making process doesn’t really contribute to that.