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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

10 years of reviewing every book I read

I reflect on writing over 1400 detailed reviews, one for every book I’ve read since joining Goodreads 10 years ago.

Back in May 2008 I joined a little website called Goodreads, then privately-owned and managed, which wanted to be the next big social media platform for readers. At first I just played around with the site, rating some books I'd previously read, and keeping track of what I was reading now. I'd write the odd review. Sometime later that year, probably around August or September, I began to review every book I read.

And now I’ve been doing that for a whole decade.

So much has changed over that time. Amazon bought Goodreads, and while it hasn't torpedoed the site the way it did Shelfari, our new corporate overlords have been felt (mainly in how much the site hasn't changed). But this post isn’t about that. It isn’t even about how, in the past 10 years, I’ve learned how to knit, graduated from university, lived and taught in England and then moved back to Thunder Bay, started teaching in adult education, bought a house, made new best friends, etc. All that is to say, 10 years in a long time to do anything, and one of the few things that have remained constant during that time is my book reviewing.

This post is obviously a brag, but it’s more a chance for me to reflect on what I do, why I do it, and how my reviewing has changed over the decade—plus, what I think I’ve learned from doing it.

Why Every Book?

Probably the first thing I should address: why review every book I read? Doesn’t that seem like overkill? Most people just review the ones that really made them feel something.

I suppose I should stop now and clarify, too: when I say review, I mean that I write very detailed, often overly-long essays on my opinion of a book. I know many people on Goodreads review every book they read in the sense that they rate it and write maybe a paragraph or two. I don’t mean to diminish that kind of behaviour or look down on people who do that; I don’t think my habits make me a “superior” reader or even reviewer. But in my commitment to review every book I read, I’m talking about spending an average of an hour to maybe even two hours per book, recording my thoughts in as much detail as possible.

Mainly I started writing reviews because I read a lot of books (around 150 a year). It’s not possible, at least with my memory, to remember how I felt about every single book. Goodreads offered me a way to offload that cognitive work onto a database: now, if someone asks me if I’ve read a certain book, I can pull out my phone and tell them not only if but what I thought about it—in detail. That last part is key. I make my reviews detailed for me first. If other people enjoy them, that’s great—and I do love reading and responding to the infrequent comments I receive—but this has never been about building a platform or following.

At some point along the way, I realized I had a streak going, and I just … didn’t want to break it. For as long as possible. Even if I DNF (mark as "did not finish") a book, I try to write an explanation as to why I abandoned it. Maybe there will come a day when I don’t review a book, or when I stop with the detailed reviews entirely—who knows what could happen or how life could get in the way. Obviously I can’t keep this up forever (but this is not a post announcing that I'm calling it after 10 years!).

How My Reviews Have Changed

I go back and re-read older reviews fairly often. Usually it’s because I’ve read a later book in the series, or another book by that author, or something I read reminded me a certain book. I like most of my reviews. Some I cringe a little at, but as with the really old blog posts on this site, I tend not to tinker much with them, except maybe to fix a typo. Unless I re-read a book, in which case I usually write a second review, I leave each review to stand as a memory of what I thought (and who I was) at the time I read the book.

Once I get my reviews up on this site again as well, it'll be easier for me (and you) to explore them in different ways, particularly chronological. Looking at some of my oldest reviews, here’s a few things I’ve noticed that make them different from what I do now:

  • They're a lot longer. I used to write essays for my reviews. These days I still write longer reviews than most on Goodreads, and occasionally I’ll chew up half or more of the 20,000 character limit. But my reviews have become shorter over time, probably because I’ve been busier. Also I was even more long-winded when I was a baby university student hopped up on literature classes than I am now!
  • I give fewer one-star reviews now. I gave 20 books 1-star ratings in 2008. In 2016, reading almost exactly as many books, I only gave 1 star to half as many. In the last two years I’ve only given a total of 6 1-star ratings. Am I nicer now? Or merely more selective about what I read? Maybe a little of both. Definitely when I was younger I took more pleasure out of writing excoriating reviews. These days I’m much more interested in reading good shit.
  • I care less about the quality of each review. You cannot have quantity and quality. By reviewing every book I read, I tacitly acknowledge that sometimes my reviews will not be “good” by various standards. That’s just part of the law of large numbers. If I wanted exquisite, hand-crafted, artisanal hipster reviews, I’d have to be much pickier about which books I review and how often I write them. But no, I crank them out. I’m very proud of some, but there are others where I knew, even at the time, they weren’t great. Because …
  • I spend less time on each review these days, and I don’t revise as much. I used to labour over my reviews much more. Now I still write them several days, if not a week, in advance—because I try to keep a buffer—but what you read is mostly first-draft writing. Sometimes, for a particularly important or particularly difficult book, I go back and edit or I plan out what I want to say ahead of time. Often, I’m structuring the review in my head as I read. Whatever the case, though, after I’ve finished that first draft, I don’t often go back and revise much of it—ain’t nobody got time for that these days, and no one is paying me for these words. So I just let it go.

What I’ve Learned

Probably the most interesting part of this for me is just the experience writing all these reviews gives me. I’ve definitely become a better writer. I don’t know if I’ve quite put the 10,000 hours Gladwell wants me to put into it, but I have several hundred thousand words of literary criticism to my name now…. I think this has helped me in all of my writing, not just in writing book reviews or similar types of essays.

Beyond that, of course, there’s the type of thinking that goes into a detailed review. Knowing that I’m going to be reviewing a book makes me pay more attention when I read; I become a more active reader. Sometimes I even take notes, mostly if there’s a passage I want to quote or analyze. So I think more about the book while I read it, and then I think more deeply about the book afterwards too.

This means that as I challenge myself with books about social justice, books from a wide diversity of authors, books that aren’t part of the standard old, white, male, Eurocentric canon, I also challenge myself to write about those books. I don’t always get it right, of course, and sometimes my reviews come across as condescending, patronizing, or otherwise marred by the lens of my white (and other) privilege. Nevertheless, my reviewing of such books motivates me to grapple with how best to express my position on important social issues. It’s one thing to read a book with gripping social commentary and another thing to explain and analyze that commentary for your future self and others.

What’s Next?

Well, I have no plans to stop reviewing every book any time soon.

As mentioned above, I really want to get my reviews up here on my site. In its previous version, my site had lists of book reviews, which I thought was a pretty cool feature, but I had trouble maintaining them. The individual reviews, while technically available, weren’t easy to surface. This time I’m going to make a much more robust repository. While I plan to keep posting my reviews on Goodreads (I don’t intend to make commenting possible here), this way I’ll have another place in case Goodreads shuts down or I ever decide to leave. Lists will hopefully come back, eventually, and then who knows what other features I’ll build?