Sunday, January 27, 2008

Context is everything

I saw the movie Titanic the night it opened. It hadn't won any Oscars. It hadn't been running for weeks. I hadn't heard any stories of people watching the movie countless times. I didn't know how much money had been spent on the production.

In short, I didn't walk into the theater with any expectations. It was just a regular movie on a regular Friday night. And what did I think? I thought it had some great parts, and some not so great parts. I thought the main characters were running around in waterlogged corridors for what seemed like hours. I thought it was too long. I thought it was a pretty good movie, but not The. Best. Movie. Ever.

But, if I had seen it after it had won an unbelievable amount of Academy Awards, and after I had read all the news stories about the incredible technical feats involved and after every single person I'd ever met had told me how good it was.... I'd probably have had very different expectations. I may have been disappointed that it didn't live up to what I'd been told. Or I may have been swept away by the hype and determined to like it because everybody else did.

Although my example above is about a movie, I think context is also incredibly important for books. I often hear people say "this book was good enough to win the Newbery Medal? Really?" But instead of asking that, ask yourself what context did you read the book in? Take a look at the basic journalism questions of who, what, where, why, when and how. Apply them to the book you're discussing.

Why did you read the book?
Did you read it for a class? Did you read it for a book club? Did you read it for work? Did someone thrust it into your hands and say that you HAD to read it? Did you read it because it had just won an award? Did you read it because you liked the author? Did you read it because the cover looked cool?

This is a crucial question. If you feel obligated or required to read a book, you will probably have a different reaction to than if you picked it up on your own.

When did you read the book?
Did you read it fifteen years ago or fifteen minutes ago? How old were you? I think this is particularly important when talking about children's books. There are some books that I think work better at a certain age.

I read The Mouse and the Motorcycle as an adult, and I thought the book was fine but nothing extraordinary. Meanwhile, my friend's daughter, who is six, just read The Mouse and the Motorcycle and LOVES it. I think it works better at that age.

I was a fifteen year old girl fascinated with theater when I first read Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar. The book is about a fifteen year old girl who wants to become an actress... and it was just the right book for me to read at that time. If I read it today, I don't know if it would resonate for me now the way it did then.

Who did you read it with?
Did you read it with classmates who didn't like it and kept complaining to you about how boring and arduous it was? Did you read it with a book club? Did you read it with a colleague who loved it? Did you read it with your child at bedtime? Did your parents read it to you when you were a child?

Other people's reactions can affect your perception a great deal. If you were reading Pride and Prejudice with a twelfth grade English class who had no interest in it... chances are you'd have a very different reaction than if you were reading it with a book club of people who all fondly remembered the book from their childhood.

What was the reputation of the book when you read it?
Was it an advance reading copy of a book that no one had heard of yet? Had it been on the New York Times bestseller lists for months? Had it just won the Newbery Medal the week before? Had the book been in print forever and officially deemed "a classic?" Or did you pick up a book that people had forgotten about at a used book sale ?

I think this is a crucial question. If you feel that you HAVE to like the book, because everybody else does, then you're going to feel a lot more pressure as you read the book. And you're liable to feel more disappointed if you don't like it. If you picked up a copy of Charlotte's Web that didn't have the Newbery Honor seal or quotes on the jacket referring to the book's legendary status... then you would read it just like any other book. You wouldn't have any expectations about it. Would you still like it just as much? Probably. But if you didn't like it, you wouldn't feel disappointed with yourself or with the author.

What book did you read?
Did you read a hardcover book that had just been published? A paperback with a tiny font in its fiftieth printing? Did it have illustrations?

Although the words don't change, the image of the book can. Let's use The Westing Game as an example. Ellen Raskin, the author of The Westing Game, also had a previous career as an illustrator and graphic designer. Because of this, she was always very focused on the physical look and layout of her books. If you can get your hands on the original hardcover of The Westing Game, you'll see that she did this brilliantly. I've often thought that the layout, fonts, type face and recurring dot motif adds a great deal to the book.

Unfortunately, many different editions of the book have emerged over the years, and almost all of them destroyed Raskin's original design. If you look at the two paperback editions that are currently in print, you'll find that the type face has been severely compressed in both editions. The dots are still there, but just barely. And the wonderful illustration that was on the front cover has been replaced. Neither edition looks attractive or really makes me want to read it. I think if you read one of these editions, you might have an entirely different reaction to the book than if you read the original.

Where did you read the book?
Did you read it on a beach with the day stretched lazily before you? Did you read it on a bus or a train with lots of background noise swirling around you?

Your atmosphere and surroundings make a difference in your impression of the book. I read Middlemarch on my dorm room bed, 15 pages a night, sitting uncomfortably straight up in bed and desperately trying to finish the book in time for a college class. It was stressful, and I feel uncomfortable just thinking about that book. But I read The Shell Seekers (okay, different class of literature, obviously) in a lounge chair poolside on a vacation. Whenever I think of that book, I remember the sun shining on me.

How did you read the book?
Did you read it on your lunch break and compressed it into fifteen minute time slots? Did you read it in bed as you were falling asleep? Did you read it as quickly as possible? Did you pick it up every few weeks (or months) and put it down again? Did you read it the moment it was published and stayed up late to finish it?

If you read the book in one gulp, then more details are liable to stick with you. It's hard to get into a book when you're not reading it consistently. Also, the atmosphere can effect you. For example, if you read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the weekend it was released, there was a lot of excitement and frenzy in the air. Everywhere you looked you could see someone reading the book and everyone wanted to discuss it. If you picked up the book today, that external excitement wouldn't be there in the same way.

Context effects everything... even if you don't realize it.

P.S. This post ending up sparking two follow-up posts. Here's a link to my post about trusting yourself and a follow-up where readers confessed which popular books they didn't like.


  1. That was inspiring. Our YA Book Club (7th/8th graders, me, and the writing teacher) are finishing up Deadline by C. Crutcher and already the reviews are mixed. As I read over your various contexts, I can recall what students have said and "place" them somewhere on the continuum. Makes total sense! Thanks for a great post!

  2. KB- Thank you so much for commenting! It's wonderful to know that my abstract theory has actual practical applications.

    I'm glad to discover your wonderful blog. I just added The Brain Lair to my blogroll.

  3. Nice post! There have been several books I've read in the past year based on positive buzz on the blogs and been disappointed by. I don't think it's that they were bad books, but they weren't *my* sort of books, but since everyone seemed so blown away, I thought, "Surely they cannot help but blow me away, too!" And then they didn't. :-)

    I don't like to read movie reviews (beyond knowing if it's a general thumbs-up or down) for sort of the opposite reason. While I'm highly critical as a reader, I'm not a critical movie viewer. I don't want a movie ruined by hearing the critics' voice in my head, because they are ever so much more picky than I am!

  4. Lisa- you made so many good points in your comment that I had to write a whole new post on the subject. Thank you!

    And yes, you're right about movie reviews. They're much more critical than book reviews. I try not to read them for movies I'm really excited about.