Fat Books & Thin Women

Why book blogs matter

I just finished rereading Kelly Link’s second collection of stories, and when I was thinking of how to write a review of it (I will, soon) it was just gushing, all gushing, and nothing on the real level of a review. I don’t love all of Kelly Link’s stories, but the bulk of them I do – and when she gets it right she really gets it right. Her stories are weird and perfectly formed in a way that no one else’s are.

The thing I like about writing this blog is that it’s cool if I write a “review” that is really just me quoting, for a full post, from Charles Portis’s True Grit, or writing about a book from the view of my own split view of the attractions of “adventure” a la Alexander Supertramp. If I want to write in my review of Link’s stories that one of the reasons I am in love with her stories is that I found her small press when I was a teenager and it inspired me to start my own small press and publish a lit zine and that she helped me realize not all stories have to be written out of the MFA factory, whatever: I can write all those things because they influence my reading in ways that are important to me.

I mean, it’s also pretty cool (I am killing this word today) that people actually show up and read my reviews sometimes, but everything I write on here is for my own personal benefit – I “review” books so that, a few months or years in the future, I can remember exactly what it is I liked or disliked about a certain book, so I can remember more clearly why I underlined certain passages or, in other cases, felt like I was going to die before I reached the end of a novel.

I am a few weeks behind on this, but still: lately there’s been all this talk and debate about book blogs and what sort of influence they have on readers and how they’re going to play into the future of the publishing industry, which is going to have to change in response to the internet and ebooks and self-publishing, more than by limiting the number of times a library can loan an ebook or by tying the prices of paperbacks and ebooks together or by placing DRM restrictions on ebooks. The vast majority of book blogs, like mine, aren’t professional or commercial; we don’t have ads, we aren’t amazon affiliates, we’re writing these blogs simply because it’s sort of fun to write book reviews that may be of interest to a few people or maybe just to our future selves.

Out of all this debate over “what book blogs mean in the reviewing business,” and thinking about my own reviewing style (which I guess you could say veers pretty dramatically from “extremely grumpy” to “talking about the Peace Corps” to “gushing” to “quoting instead of even bothering writing a review”), and watching an episode of Gilmore Girls that had me googling Dawn Powell because Rory mentions her in the same breath as Dorothy Parker, all I can think is that this is the best thing about book blogs: that it’s personal. The ten or so book blogs that I read really regularly, I read because I like the review style, but mostly because I feel like I know enough about the writers to trust their taste and to have a sense of how their reading lines up with my own. (Kind of like me and Rory Gilmore.) Of the many things offered by the increasingly slim book review sections of major newspapers, one of them isn’t an insight into the reviewer’s reading habits and preferences and how they happened to end up with a book in their hands, and those are exactly the sorts of things I like to read about.

I mean, I know that “real” book reviewers end up with the books they’re reviewing because the publishers sent review copies to their paper – but that is what I’m getting at, because I want to read about how people who find books the way I do found the books they’re reading. Knowing that someone found a book for a dollar at a library sale somehow adds something to a review, because (a) I miss library sales, (b) I’ve found a lot of good books at library sales, and (c) it reminds me of the joy of finding a book so unexpectedly.

There are some things about book blogs that I find occasionally weird, like trying to read 200 books in a year (something that is constantly referenced, as in “all these book bloggers read 200+ novels a year, but I can’t manage that”, but that I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen), but what I love is when all that is thrown aside and you are left with nothing but the joy of reading, of finding and reading and loving a book that you hadn’t even heard of a week ago, of being able to share that with someone else and shove the books into their hands, or as close as can be managed, electronically-speaking. It is so cool (again!) and promising that so many people write about the books they’re reading or want to read, or why they read the books they read, and I think a promising sign that whatever happens to the publishing industry and the review industry over the next few years, this one essential thing, the love of reading, isn’t going to go anywhere.

As dedicated a reader of the New York Times Book Review as I was when I lived in the states, I never got this feeling from reading it. It is better, in so many ways, to be reading the reviews of someone who is my age (or not), who shares my general reading interests (or doesn’t), who is taking her own time to write about the books she is currently loving or hating or feeling somewhere in the middle about. I don’t know how influential book blogs are, or are going to be, but I do know that I love that the average reader feels empowered enough to share her thoughts on reading with several or dozens or hundreds or thousands of readers. Or just herself, a few years down the road.

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Those are exactly the reasons I love book blogs and book blogging! Also thanks for reminding me that there was an episode of Gilmore Girls on I was missing!

Comment by Bex

haha, happy to be of service…i’m currently working on the noble goal of watching the complete gilmore girls, so at some point a post on how rory gilmore makes my own reading habits look bad is due. (Does she EVER read anything that’s NOT a classic?!)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I love the repeated references to Gilmore Girls! I’m watching the episode with the Festival of Living Pictures as I type this, lol.

I agree with all of your sentiments about book blogging. I tend to get stressed out about only having eleven followers and how will I ever be able to do a giveaway (oh by the way, I have no money) and when will the publishers come knocking at MY door with free books? But you’re right – the fun is in gushing and mocking and connecting with other readers (I have few “real” friends who read).

Great post, I really enjoyed it!

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

yeah, at certain points i have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter how many people read my blog, because the people who do – well, i really admire their blogs and enjoy reading them, and it’s so much fun to be able to have these conversations about books. those things, like publishers sending books off to review, is kind of awesome – when i got a review copy i couldn’t help telling practically everyone i knew that i got a free book. because of this blog! how weird is that?

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m a newcomer to the blogosphere, and have been amazed by all the new work I’ve been exposed to in such a short period of time. I feel that, like you, the book blogging community (much like other topics) basically serves as a means to share something you’ve felt with the world. It’s a way to connect and forge relationships with people you would never have met. It’s a place for individuals that enjoy critically assessing written work in a public space to flourish. I miss the days of lecture and discussion, and turned to book blogging to keep my mind sharp. Sure, it’s natural to be upset when you post something that you’re really proud of and it goes unnoticed. But everyday is a new day. Your points about being able to look back on the ideas you’ve felt about particular titles is so true. It’s nice to have the ideas documented– a source to turn to when it’s needed. Surely a measurement of growth. Thanks for this post. It’s made my day! Happy to have found your blog!

Comment by Beth

I second that – I love the chance to write about books and keep myself thinking; it makes up for not being able to attend lectures anymore. and you’re right, it’s fun to look past over old posts to see what i wrote about a book. sometimes i’m a little surprised by what i wrote, in that there are certain themes i look at when i’m reading books (time, memory) that i don’t pick up on until i read three old reviews all going on about how the characters remember things.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

As a fellow Kelly Link fan (I would write “adorer” but that sounds a little mad and I wouldn’t want to lump you in with that), and a fellow puzzler over the whole book-tally thing, I decided this would have to be my delurking post: so color me delurked! I haven’t been lurking long, but it has all been very enjoyable so far.

Comment by trapunto

no, no, go right ahead and lump me in as a “kelly link adorer.” i’m happy that you’ve delurked and even happier to find someone who’s as big a fan of kelly link as i am!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Lovely personal passionate post. I must say I haven’t heard the debates about book blogging that you are talking about. I wish there were more such over here because when they talk book blogs they tend to talk of the professional ones attached to the newspapers and lit journals and tend to forget about we non-professional ones. Like you, I do like reading reviews where the reviewer gives of themselves a little. (I try to do that – but often get too caught up in writing “the review” and forget about the personal stuff. Note to self, be more personal more often.)

Finally, I LOVE the Gilmore Girls. It’s my daughter’s and my guilty-or-not-so-guilty pleasure. Watching Rory grow up is such a treat…and all those characters in the town are such fun. Who said TV is antisocial? One of the pleasures in life is watching shows like this with a family member or friend who loves them too … and then sharing them with others.

Comment by whisperinggums

one of the things that cracks me up, a little, about watching gilmore girls, is the response it elicits. it turns out that almost EVERYONE loves this show, the tendency towards watching it seems especially strong among book bloggers.. :)

it’s interesting to me that most of the book blog discussion on your side of the world revolve around professional book blogs, though maybe i shouldn’t be surprised; i wasn’t really aware that there was a group of book bloggers until about a month after i started this blog. there are a few professional book blogs i read (like the new yorker’s book bench), but i find my interest wanes pretty quickly when i’m not reading a personal one. even the personal book blogs that have shifted in a commercial direction (with ads, giveaways, lots and lots of review copies being written about), i find i’m not too interested in. it’s so much more fun to read someone’s blog and get the more personal things – like i love how you do posts to highlight favorite passages, which i don’t think you’d find on a professional blog.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I love this post. Like other bloggers, I worry about getting more comments and followers, but, at the end of the day, I blog about books because I enjoy it. I’ve also been striving to be more personal with my posts.

Also, I love Gilmore Girls. I still haven’t gotten over the fact the Jess and Rory didn’t end up together. In my head, they ended up together after a couple of years, and now have book-loving kids. LOL.

Comment by Darlyn

but did you know that in real life they dated for three and a half years? my friend told me last week….also that this would ruin their relationship in the series, because there were some rumors of abuse. all i could think was, “milo what’s-his-face would abuse RORY GILMORE????”

i should add this to the list of things i like about book blogs: having a forum for discussing gilmore girls, since it seems that every book blogger on earth loves this show.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

p.s. I’ve never seen Gilmore Girls. I don’t ever watch tv…

Comment by Rebecca Reid

aw, what a nice tribute to the book blogging community!

I do blog to keep track for myself too. I started to get distracted with the community for a while there, choosing what I’d read next based on what I thought people would want me to read — but that didn’t last long. I’m back to reading my unpopular classics and I’m probably never going to have a huge readership. But I try to remember it’s for me and not everyone else primarily.

I should add that though I’m an Amazon Associate, it’s not a profitable thing. I’ve gotten a $10 book certificate maybe twice in the three years I’ve been blogging. And I joined because it’s technically illegal (against copyright) to use Amazon cover images in a post unless one has a right to use them; becoming an Associate gave me that right.

Comment by Rebecca Reid

interesting – i didn’t know that! although, having (a long, long time ago) had a website that did feature ads, i know how little money it is possible to make through banner ads and commission sales…i think $25 in a year?

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

oh, and to respond to another part of your comment – about abandoning an effort to read what you thought your readers would want – i’m glad that you did! i read without much planning and can’t imagine trying to force some sort of reading schedule around what i thought people would want to see reviewed. i imagine that none of this would be much fun if we were all trying to please people other than ourselves.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Ah, I’m glad you raised the cover issue. My belief it is technically illegal too. I am not an Amazon Associate so I only use covers of books for companies from whom I have got specific advice to use their images. Pretty well every publisher I have written to has given me permission but a couple haven’t. One is Penguin – they have not even replied to the two emails I’ve sent SO they get no nice visual promo for their books. I often get a free author image from Wikipedia instead – if one exists there.

Comment by whisperinggums

this is the part where i pretend i didn’t hear, i think….

this actually seems pretty goofy now i think of it – it never occurred to me i couldn’t just grab a cover pic or an author photo, but i wouldn’t take any other image and throw it up on my site.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I think most people don’t think about this (it’s just that copyright was a significant issue in my career so I’m probably more conscious of it). I suspect the publishers don’t chase it up on blogs because it is promotion for them but technically covers are under copyright. If you search publishers websites for info re use of cover images you’ll almost always find nothing, and yet some of them actually have a little link to “download this image” next to the cover.

It’s partly my little game – I want them to recognise the issue and make the situation clear for us all. They don’t though… One of the publishers I contacted said ‘no’ first, but then checked with their Legal Department and came back and gave me permission.

Comment by whisperinggums

The Book Thief is very meaningful. As a seionr citizen, growing up as a small child during WW II the book made me realize that the enemy is not the axis or the allies, but rather very insidiously introduced into your life. The book made me realize that we all must be vigilant in watching for those influences that make us intolerant to fellow mankind.

Comment by Kjell

Well said Kjell … that is the scary truth isn’t it?

Comment by whisperinggums

200 books a year is a lot!! and yup, I totally agree with your PoV on book blogs

Comment by Book Reviews at BookRack

Well written, and I concur on all points. I love to announce that book blogs do matter! Thanks for posting this. It is always wonderful validation from our peers in this community. :)

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

Very perceptive post about book blogging. I do think it’s a very supportive and friendly community.

I’ve never done the free books thing – the thought of piles of books arriving from publishers which I have no interest in reading fills me with horror!

Comment by Nicola

[…] review so much as they react to the books they’re reading. I did a post a while back about why book blogs matter, and mentioned that one of the things I like about book blogs is that the bloggers provide a more […]

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