My high school teacher assigned book reviews. Each review had to be “at least five hundred words.” Needless to say with that directive, we students worked to get our two and half pages, covering what the book was about, the important characters, the setting, the conflict, and then we counted our words. Most of the time, we were woefully short. Then one time we came up with a brilliant idea. Dialogue! We quoted passages from the book—some longer than others-- and wrote a couple sentences, stating whether the dialogue was sarcastic, friendly, bitter, or sentimental. We made our word limit. Most often our reviews did not receive A's.
When I taught school, I also assigned book reviews. What was I after? Our great American culture and tradition is based on the writings of the classics, and I wanted to be sure my students had read the book. I also wanted to know if the student had enjoyed the story or simply plowed through it. I wanted to know how the reader felt about the characters and whether the plot spoke some universal truth.
What is a classic? The best answer to that question was written long ago by Arnold Bennett. I hesitate to mention the year-- 1927. He said a classic depends upon ”the passionate few.” When I read his essay “Why as Classic is a Classic,” I was charmed by that phrase. These “passionate few” are the people who keep an author or a particular piece of work alive from one generation to the next. Think Shakespeare. He wrote that the “passionate few” find a lasting pleasure in literature and enjoy literature as some men enjoy beer.
So what are the qualities in a book which give these people such keen and lasting pleasure? Bennett states, “This is a question so difficult that it has never yet been completely answered.”
When reviewing a book, a reader must consider the basics--- plot, character, setting, conflict, tone, figurative language, and substance. A better review would mention whether the book speaks of truth and beauty, is humorous, offers insight or wisdom, or something else. I like to add whether or not I enjoyed the story, genre, or the author’s style of writing. I got my newspaper writing start by reviewing children's books. That led me to review adult books as well, and from that, I branched into personal opinion columns. I wrote newspaper columns for fifteen years. I loved the experience. For a time, I also had a stint writing restaurant reviews for a magazine. For that, I gave myself an anonymous name and dined at places big and small, expensive and inexpensive.
Being honest when reviewing a restaurant or a book is difficult, but the process is valuable. Whether it's the author or the owner of the restaurant, each appreciates the fact that someone took the time to experience his or her creative efforts.