How To Write A Book Review

I recently finished reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Petersen. If you’re not familiar with the man, his book does provide a little history of his rise to recent prominence. I only found out about him in the last 6 months, from seeing some YouTube lectures on the nature of humanity, psychology, and various other subjects. Millions of others are like me in that they didn’t know about this former Harvard professor and clinical psychologist until he garnered quite a bit of attention for a political position about compelled speech, for the fact that the alt-right has commandeered some of his arguments to bolster their position, and for the fact that he’s quite solidly against some of the feel-good trends of the day.

Not getting into those here.

Instead, I’m going to write a little rant about book reviews.

It’s weird. Many book reviews are often not reviews, but summaries. I blame 11th Grade English teachers.

In their insistence that we answer exactly the question they’ve asked, with exactly the facts they wish to hear, but written “in your own words”, they’ve trained us less to think critically and more to paraphrase. This comes out when you look at the multitude of reviews on Amazon.com (or any other review platform). Most of the time, these are simply restatements of fact about the book, rather than their own impressions of the book’s content, how it made them feel, or what they take away from it.

And let’s not confuse a “rating” (1 star, 2 stars, etc.) with a “review”. A rating is an objective ranking. This is better than that. Those over there are worse than these here. A review is a subjective evaluation. This spoke to me. I appreciated parts here and there. Generally they’re correlated, but not equal. That is, most of the time you have a positive rating you also have a positive review. But sometimes not. I think it is entirely possible to have a 1-star rating with a “positive” review. That is, someone could find the format absolutely terrible (1-star) and disagree with the conclusions, yet still respect the arguments laid out within(“positive” review).

Which is why we need to have more critical reviews out in the public sector. But, ironically, not too many. Currently, Amazon.com has 4,878 reviews of 12 Rules for Life. I imagine B&N.com has thousands more, not to mention Goodreads and an uncountable number of independent opinions hosted on blogs or other smaller sites. If I read even a small fraction of all of those, I would easily spend longer on that task than the 15 or 16 hours I spent reading the text. Would that be worth my time? Probably not. I’d do much better to read a few and make a decision based on that information and spend the majority of my time with the actual book.

But where to start?

I’m sure that’s why Amazon introduce the [HELPFUL] button. This allows me to see whether other readers of this review have found value from the review. A meta-review, as it were. But doesn’t this also contribute to the problem of social conditioning and trending and social signaling? As more people find a particular review “helpful”, Amazon drives that review upward in the feed, creating a feedback loop in which I as a user don’t get the chance to experience the whole range of reviews, only the lucky leaders which came in to the process early, and have been promoted not necessarily because of quality, but simply because of quantity (of “helpful” ratings earlier than those which came later and are, unfortunately, buried too far back in the queue to ever get a chance at visibility).

Back to the review vs. summary discussion, what ends up happening is that many of those summaries are not helpful. They are not rated as such by readers. Good reviews, though, as actual reviews which provide insights, now take prominence because we, as readers, don’t want to waste our time reading unhelpful summaries. So we want to read the most helpful reviews, often of the value which we believe we’ll end up holding after we read the text! That is, if I think I’ll like it, I’m mostly going to spend time reading 5-star reviews. If I think I’ll hate it, I’m probably going to be waist-deep in 1-stars.

Ironically, and unfortunately, this confirmation bias problem drives a narrowing of the perspectives we are likely to see when considering a book. How many people read the 5 “most helpful” of each of the 5-star reviews, 4-star reviews, 3-star reviews, 2-star reviews, and 1-star reviews? Not many. We often read a couple of 5-stars, and validate our own internal prejudiced decisions we’ve already emotionally made with reference to these “independent” observers.

I think that’s a bad way to go about it. I don’t think this gives us a broad base of knowledge on which to base a conclusion. Instead, it feeds the brain’s energy-saving decision shortcuts

So. I there a way to fix this? I don’t know. Limit the # of reviews? Create an algorithm within Amazon’s display that forces a random review to be shown, rather than the “most helpful”? Cycle through on a first-written-first-shown basis so that each has a chance to be seen in equal measure? I don’t know the right answer.

Right now we’re getting the same sort of ineffective (destructive?) virtue-signaling and trend-whoring that we all complain about in social media. For the information industry (book publishing, lectures, blogging, etc.), which is so critical to the healthy function of a society, we may be running dangerously low on healthy debate, dissent, and critical thinking. Because we all want “the best” (again for a multitude of reasons), yet we’re not willing to go through the difficult process of evaluating for ourselves what the best might be.

Perhaps having a conversation around what it is we seek to accomplish through reviews, ratings, and the entire feedback process is warranted. I’ll leave that to someone else to organize.

SJ

P.S. I realize this essay doesn’t make much sense. Probably because I’m thinking as I write. I reserve the right to review and revise later.

P.P.S. I guess the least I could do is give you my review. Link here:

See below for text. You’re welcome.

P.P.P.S. I gave the book a 5-star rating and a positive review. It’s unlikely anyone will ever see that review and make a decision because of it, because now this review is buried a hundred pages back.

I don’t write many reviews on Amazon. They’re often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything else, so it feels as if I’m simply shouting into the void. Because…

This book needs no additional 5-star review. There are plenty of them already. This book needs no additional commentary – there is plenty of that already. This book, this author, needs no additional puffing up of his reputation – there’s plenty of that done by the Patreon subscribers and the purchasers of his other books. And yet…

In keeping with the rules that say “Tell the truth – or at least, don’t lie” and “Be precise in your speech,” I offer this rating and review in order to be consistent with the pull in my innermost Being, to respond to what I have just read and to share my thoughts, regardless of their receipt.

Thank you, Mr. Peterson. Thank you for saying, eloquently, what many of us have felt within our own spirit for years now. That this life is not easy. That there are hard things to do, and hard ways of doing them. That we’re not all badasses, that we’re not all going to win. That we must work, because of reasons outside our control, but despite that work and those obstacles we can still create within ourselves a life that is meaningful, that reaches for higher values. A life that represents better, a better Being, and strives agains the Chaos around us.

All should read this book. Not all will. And even of those who do, some shall be put off by the many references to God and Christianity and the Bible as authoritative. That’s a disappointment. For, even if one does not hold that same philosophy (as I do not), one should admit that, in accord with one of the rules, that this other person, this author (who has striven to bring your life additional Order) has something to say. Not just something for the sake of saying something, just to be heard and followed mindlessly in order to inflate an ego out of selfish desires, but something important and, ultimately, valuable as you strive to create a life you can be proud to leave behind.

Writing Practice 10/30/2018

Poem a Day, page 150 (May 16)

The older women wise and tell Anna first time baby mother, “hold a stone upon your head and follow a straight line go home”

They give her no instructions on what to do after, how to hold it, how to nurse it, how to clean it, but she still knows it will be alright. She has seen dozens of babies born in the village, has seen many many women younger than her take care of their children well and grown them up to be adults too, so her, first time baby mother despite her grey hair and beginnings of wrinkles at her eyes, she knows she’ll be just okay.

Anna takes it home, holds it in the corner of her arm, not on her hip like she’s seen others do, but still tight to her, because those other babies were bigger, louder, pinker when they showed up. This one’s still quiet, kind of grey, and it don’t move much, but she figures it’s just sleeping. Babies do that a lot, they sleep a lot, and they fuss a lot, so she’s just happy right now that this baby ain’t fussing much yet.

She takes the baby, which was heavy and hard inside her and somehow feels so much lighter and softer now that it’s outside, she takes this baby and when she gets home, careful walk to hold baby in left arm and hold stone on head with right arm, magic wisdom ain’t to be fooled with, she takes the baby, still not fussing, still a good thing, still not trouble, still she’s better than all the other mothers, she takes the baby and wraps it, warm and tight and cute, into a blanket and lays the blanket beside all the other blankets on the floor, and she lays down on all those other blankets on the floor, for her place, her her home, is just a hut, really, no fancy doors or windows for Anna, the town stranger, the oddity, the outcast, who has lived over here at this edge of civilization for all of her forty-three years, first as a child with her own mother then with her brother who took care of her after mother left when she was six, then by herself when that older brother left a decade later.

So now she has some company, finally, someone who will stay and help her have a talk to, someone who will tell her stories, and look at the stars at night and draw water from the town well and hear her lullabies, and so she sings one to the baby, still, still, still lying in that blanket, still not fussing, blessing, and the tired from the birthing takes over and she sings softer and softer and then she drifts to sleep, lying on her pile of blankets, lying on the dirt floor of her hut, lying with a companion for the first time in a long time, lying to herself.

Writing Practice – 5/11/2018

Telling Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, p 693

Around that time – because of numerous dislocations in the Valley, the abrupt abandoning of homes, for instance – it happened that packs of dogs began to roam around looking for food, particularly by night.

They moved and merged like flocks of sparrows on the wing, turning as if one, ducking down into an alley or crossing a street or huddling under a bridge, in a kind of near-union that the observers, themselves holed up in the remaining places, could never quite fully grasp. Were there ten dogs? Or a hundred? Did they travel mostly at night? Well, some did. Did they hunt or scavenge? Yes, both, and neither. Did they have a leader? A central hub or den? Did they ever pair off and mate, or was this the moment simply for survival, and procreation would be saved for more generous, fatter times?

They watched from their squatting places, huddled upon the third or fifth or eighth floors of the abandoned apartments, doors at the ground level tightly closed and double-locked against the potential for canine invasion.

They waited and watched, and they ate their scavenged foods, and they smoked their improvised cigarettes, and, unlike (or, perhaps, exactly like) the dogs, they fucked, but it was a half-hearted endeavor, one which was more for something to do than to create any new life, for, (and in that way they were exactly like the dogs) they saw in themselves nothing of worth and value to pass onto the next generation, save a fighting, surviving spirit.

Such a spirit would come in useful during lean times. Such a spirit actually was coming in useful during this lean time. And, as nobody really knew much about the outside world anymore, what with radio, television, internet communications cut off and overland travel still too dangerous, nobody bringing news of the lands beyond the city gates had arrived in more than a year. So their isolation grew.

Like a population of animals, separated by a physical boundary, like a river or a mountain, they, too, began to adapt to their unique environment and carve out specializations, niches which gave them slightly better chances of survival.

Nico, he got the cigarettes. Nobody else seemed to be able to find them, but he always had a pack on him. When asked, he would shrug his shoulders, as if they appeared by magic in his pack, but everyone else knew he was just better at that sort of thing.

Kyle excelled at scavenging food. From only partly moldy bread to relatively okay preserved meats and cheeses, they didn’t starve, and time enough had passed that they no longer complained about the steady diet, even if all of them remembered things like chocolate cake, beer, and a napkin.

Tobi and Karen provided the sex. Each one either took or gave as necessary, and it really wasn’t that bad, if your eyes were closed and you pretended it was your girlfriend from before.

And Zenney, she provided the hope. Preached it daily. Stood out on the stoop, eyes wide, arms stretched to the sun, and sang, songs of regeneration, renewal, paradise, whatever she could think to keep the despair at bay for one more sunset.

There were others, too. There were always others. But these were the most special, because they survived the longest, to tell their stories. The rest lived, and died, and were remembered, then forgotten. And that was how it should be.

What Should I Write About?

So, usually my writing practice topics are just made up on the spot. Occasionally I’ll do a series – See “Love Is…” (1) through (10).

Sometimes I’ll take a line from another piece of work and go with that. This is a good example: [from “In The Zoo” by Jean Stanford]

Other times I’ll just start with “I feel…” or “I smell…” and write about what’s immediately around me.

And then there are the lists of writing topics. Usually pretty soon after I start a new notebook I’ll have a day where my writing practice is just “write a list of writing topics”, and when I don’t have something in mind I can come to this page, close my eyes, point a finger somewhere, and see what happens. When I’m writing those lists, they might look like this: (these are all from 3/11/2018)

  • Write about a tree.
  • Write about family trees.
  • Write about family obligations.
  • Write about family reunions.
  • Write about class reunions.
  • Write about low-class reunions.
  • Write about high-class reunions.
  • Write about “putting on airs.”
  • Write about “putting on heirs.”
  • Write about “putting on hairs.”
  • Write about artificiality.
  • Write about superficiality.
  • Write about boob jobs.
  • Why haven’t penis enlargement surgeries received the same kind of market saturation as boob jobs?
  • How far would you go to achieve your happiness?
  • How much of yourself are you willing to change for someone you love?
  • etcetera etcetera …

Obviously I’m not going to write about all of these topics. I probably won’t write about more than 4 or 5 before this notebook is filled and I move to the next one. But the process helps me think of connections, helps to identify associations that might not have been readily present for most people.

So … I want to ask you, readers … What do you think I should write about? Leave a comment, and I’ll use those as prompts in the next couple of weeks. What greatness might we cultivate together?

Writing Practice – 3/14/2018 – Describe revelry

Describe revelry…

It is laughter and dancing. It is shouting with excitement. It is hand-clapping, and hand-slapping, and hand-waving, and hand-wringing. It is dancing in the streets, arms and shoulders and knees and ankles keeping a disjointed, “I-don’t-care-because-there-are-more-important-elements-to-enjoy-than-rhythm” unfocused pattern.

It is eyes sparkling with joy. It is kisses on cheeks, kisses on lips, kisses blown to the crowd, kisses caught by the crowd and returned, a hundredfold, a thousand times, an simplification far greater than any microphone and speaker set the finest money could buy.

It is a celebration with a complete stranger, hugs and camaraderie together at once, a moment, a moment which stretches for minutes, an hour, a moment which becomes an era, a moment that transforms the timeline into “Before” and “After”.

It is a transition, it is a celebration, it is a new way of seeing the world, through not only my own eyes but the compounding effect of a myriad like-minded persons, pooling our experiences together in this one instance to become something more than ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something richer and fuller than the aggregation of individualities.

It is a transsubstantiation, a making of something old out of something new. The old, being togetherness. And the new, the individuals coming together in the experiencing.

It is an overwhelm. It is a superposition. It is a phase change, a sublimation from one state to another. It is a world of difference, encompassed in the minimality of space; it is a universe of symbiosis metamorphosing into one. From the many, to the unity. Unity of purpose. Unity of experience. Unity of vision. Unity of life.

Extremely Bad Advice – Sloppy Neighbors

Dear SJ: My neighbor has been inviting us over for dinner for months. We went once and were quite disgusted. The place was a mess. Pizza boxes on the floor, dirty clothes all over, old newspapers and mail covering all the counters, and the cat’s litter box is right in the middle of the room with little pieces scattered in front. We had to move decades-old piles of food trash to sit at the dinner table, and even then I could barely see my wife on the other side. I can’t imagine that these people raised two children in a house like this. I am not interested in going again. So far we’ve been able to have convenient “plans” every Friday with my wife’s teaching schedule. However, the semester has come to an end so they know we’re no longer busy on Friday nights. How can we politely decline this invitation?

Yours, CONFLICTED IN CHICAGO

All right, here’s the deal, Conflicted. It’s clear from the situation inside the house that these people don’t give a shit about themselves or you. If they’ve let the place go half as much as I imagine it’s probably just a month away from being featured on a Hoarders: Special Edition episode. In situations like this, remember: It’s not about the stuff. It’s about the imbeciles behind the piles.

This couple is so dense they can’t see the feces right in front of their faces. [Hahaha! Made myself laugh with that one.] Instead of building a better future for the next generation, people like this and their progeny are lowering the average IQ of their community, the state, and, unfortunately for the rest of us, the nation. This couple puts paid the adage “Some people shouldn’t breed.” And the sad part is they’ve most likely trained their children to do the same. Thus, since you and I have a vested interest in making this world better, the solution is obvious.

You need to take a Molotov cocktail to their place when they’re sleeping one Saturday night. Now, I say Saturday, because, just like anal sex, I’m going to ask you to take one for the team soon. It’s not great in the moment, but you know the outcome is going to be totally worth it.

The next Friday they invite you over, you need to accept their invitation. Go, have that dinner of expired kibble with the side of dried-up roach wings. Wipe your mouth with the cum-stained sweat socks they offer you as napkins. Excuse yourself for a minute after dinner, and that’s when you and your wife have the most critical task: find and disable all their smoke detectors. It’s not enough just to remove the batteries – you’ve got to get in there and cut the wires. And you’ve got to be good – we don’t want any unfortunate misses on this one.

Then, on Saturday, make sure to call those kids and remind them how much mommy and daddy miss them, want to see them, and really, really, really need them to come home for the night. If you can do that, we’ll all owe you a debt of gratitude. And don’t worry – your conscience will be clear as a forest stream for all the good work you’ve done. Good luck, and happy snipping!

Describe An Eclipse – writing practice

Writing practice from 8/21/2017

Describe An Eclipse…

It begins with a slight darkening. Once you realize that it is not as bright out beside you, you take off your specially-ordered, ISO-whatever-approved, custom-printed glasses and look around. You see shapes becoming crisper. The bushes are not as brilliant on their own. There is a bit of a hush to the crowd. They have also noticed the slight darkening. For all of you, when you look to the heavens, there is almost a spiritual connection. All of you, together in this place, are experiencing this. You have gathered here to sanctify this ground, to bless it with your presence as you see, as you show, as you become one with this unifying force. There is nothing else for you today – no work, no labor, no stress, no headache. You are ready for the connection. You wait for the moon to blacken out the sun; to destroy the God of the sky. To eat away your reason for being, to consume what birthed you and your people. You do not know what is happening; yet, you believed the stories your elders have told you, and you now know they were not simply fairy tales. The tension grows. It builds and builds, a crescendo of hope, fear mixed together. There is a desire – a justified trepidation – that runs through the crowd.

You watch as the moon covers, more and more, of the golden disk. At first it looked like a mouse had nibbled a bite off a cheese wheel. Then as if a dinner party had helped themselves. Then as if a wedding got out of control, and all the guests had attacked the golden disk – tearing out hunks with their hands, leaving only a brilliant crescent balanced against a pure-black sky. The crescent shrinks, narrowing, darkening, until just a small band remains.

And then, that too, is gone. And you remove your glasses to stare up at a hole in the sky- to see an absence, where you used to see presence. To see a void, a tunnel through the vastness of space to the edge of the universe. The brilliant white of the shell, corona, halo, wispy against the still-blue sky, frames it as a terrible, awesome, incredible backdrop, upon which some angels and demons have painted their greatest fears. The backdrop remains, still, unmoving, as you know and fear the end of this spectacle. The countdown resumes, and then the brilliance returns, the sun in its power and authority once more reclaiming its rightful place in the sky.

You wait – we wait – for a few moments, as the cheers of “Hooray!” And “We survived” ring out across the land. We wait a few moments, and watch, with our glasses returned to protect us again, the sliver, the slice, the line, the crescent, grows back again. But the tension has dissolved. Now it is just a curiosity. A past-time. A wonder that was, and has had all of its mystery dissipated. People have left. They continue to leave. And there is no more wonder, no more confusion. No more worry; no more fear. No more anticipation, either. Yet for all that is not, think of all there is. Restoration. – Peace – Joy. – Hope. Renewal. Adventure. Progress.

We see these, we experience, we love them all. And we go forth and live.