Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them? (‘cause if they do, teachers, here’s a suggestion…)

§   Monthly book reports were a class requirement throughout all of my elementary school years  §

I am a prolific reader. It’s nothing for me to knock back two or even three light mystery novels a week, especially as I prefer reading to watching TV.  I am also a prolific reviewer; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I style myself “The Savage Reviewer”. (Scroll to the end if you’d like to locate and read that post.)

Due to the number of books I read, though, I’m not merely a reader and reviewer; I’m also a major consumer of reviews. So I find myself constantly amazed (and irked! Decidedly irked!  Really, really, really irked!) by readers who can’t compose a helpful book review.

These are, obviously, people who enjoy reading. Since they are taking the time to write a review, one would suppose that they probably (as I do) rely heavily on these assessments before purchasing a book. Despite these obvious facts, though, instead of writing a review, they produce what is, in essence, a book report.  An elementary school book report!

Honestly, I’m not certain if today’s students are still required to write them, but composing monthly book reports was enforced throughout my school years as an additional study obligation to our classroom textbooks. These were descriptive plot summaries which proved we students had completely grasped the contents of a novel.

Each book report consisted of specific components: the names of the main characters, the location where the action took place, and a brief description of the plot. As we students grew older, our papers became more complex.  Character motives and the theme of the novel were added, and sometimes, even the reasons why we did or did not like the story.  And it is only those “grown up” categories—liked/disliked, motives, themes, and behaviors—that actually have any real place in today’s reader book review process.

The liked/disliked category, nothing more than a row of stars, should be basic enough for the most profound moron.  Nevertheless, some critics manage to botch even that, awarding only a single star to a book they genuinely liked.  From the stars, a review dives into a headline. Most reviewers seem to manage that with the requisite flair, providing quick, all encompassing phrases such as, “Loved This Book!”, or “Worst Book EVER”.  But their remarks often cascade downhill from that point.

Plot summaries and teasers were once the province of dust jackets or back covers, whereas now they generally reside in the online synopsis labeled “Product Description”. But all too often, what passes for a review is nothing more than another synopsis–unfortunately, often replete with spoilers. “After 20 years away, Emily returns home to open a bakery, and her first customer drops dead in front of the cash register!” So the reviews trumpet, one after another.  Great. Thanks. Now I don’t really need bother reading the first chapter of the book.

Skimming these reviews, I grit my teeth. I don’t want to know WHAT happens—I’ve already surmised that from reading the online synopsis. I want genuinely pertinent information that might help me decide if this is a book I want to read. Is the book riddled with typos, misspellings,  rotten sentence structure and poor grammar? Is the poor grammar limited to the characters’ slang speech, or is it part of the text itself? Are the characters three-dimensional, with clearly-defined motives? Are their actions, behavior and speech realistic? Does the book move forward briskly, or does it creep at a snail’s pace? Does it keep one’s attention, or are there long, boring digressions in the plot? Is it humorous, or witty, or even laugh-out-loud funny? Is it depressing, sad? Exciting, thrilling? Terrifying? Is the ending satisfactory, or does it leave the reader hanging, without real resolution? (Or, worse, is the reader intentionally left dangling on a hook intended to make her or him buy the next book in the series?) Can you, the reader, put your finger on just why you did/did not like the book, or are your feelings amorphous—i.e., you hated it, but you can’t quite say exactly why that should be. Do you recommend the book? Would you tell friends, “Don’t bother”?

These are the elements that need to be incorporated into a genuine book review, and rarely are.

Book critics still abound, but, more and more, most of us rely on the advice and opinions of  readers like ourselves. Bearing that in mind, teachers, here’s a recommendation: Perhaps you need no longer require your students to produce book reports.  Instead, maybe you should grade them on just how well they can write a book review.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check the archives for
“The Savage Reviewer”, posted on 09/02/2020; or
“To Review or Not Review”, from 12/13/2017, or the upcoming “The Savage Reviewer, Part 2” , TBA.

Mindless Headlines

I prefer to read, rather than watch or listen to the news. I click the X at the top of nearly every news video, scrolling to read the story beneath, sometimes punching out to my favorite search engine (NOT Google, but that’s a story for another post) to find further information or explanation and detail.

But to do this, I must suffer the monotonous and apparently endless onslaught of absurd “human interest” stories that populate the sides and bottom of my screen as I attempt to determine what is and is not actually happening in the world.   “Remember her? What she looks like now is insane!” multiple headlines trumpet—insane apparently being a finalist for the Misused Word of the Year. “Local Mom finds solution….” – Mom having somehow transmuted to code for “trustworthy person”.  (Grandmother runs a close second in this ridiculous portrayal.) “Her shocking sex confession…” Oh, for the love of heaven. Nobody is going to be shocked, and who the hell cares, anyway?  “This famous person’s horrible health habit…”  Which is probably something that three-quarters of us do, and while we may consider it less than healthy, it isn’t horrible. “This photo is driving the internet crazy…”  No it isn’t.  Nobody cares, because it’s not even interesting. “His cancer journey” another caption or three or four declare.  Listen, I’ve had cancer and it’s not a journey,  nor a trip, a voyage, or an expedition.  It’s a slowly-unwinding nightmare of tests and surgeries, of tears and emotional anguish, punctuated by bouts unremitting fear.

The English language is full and flavorful, and there are numerous better adjectives, captions, headings and descriptors than those that are so constantly bandied about. It’s a pathetic form of journalism which selects a single simple, mindless word or phrase and lodges upon it for months to years at a time.

No doubt those who write these inane headlines use such repetitive phrasing because they believe it will capture the attention of a populace that, by and large today, does not read. (Either that, or the writers are as cluelessly incapable of composition as their subscribers are of discernment.) In any case, their philosophy seems to be: Hook ‘em quickly and reel ‘em in, and they’ll be sure to punch out to the click bait with all its accompanying inescapable ads.

I think this sloppy attitude does a grave injustice to the reading public, but then, I like to read—not to be read to, not to view.  For much the same reason, I don’t order the accompanying audible stories to my e-books.  I want to read a story—to invest the author’s words with my own subtle interpretation of phrasing and emphasis—not to listen to another’s version.  (I felt much the same way when, as a high school student, I listened to a recording of T.S. Elliot reading his poem, “The Hollow Men”.  It was awful. Simply awful. I much preferred the version of his poem that I heard in my own head.)

All of this may just go to prove my complete arrogance regarding my own skill in reading, but the simple truth remains: I am a reader. I chose to be informed and entertained by reading.  I find delight and sometimes surprise in a well-turned phrase, and in detail that easily escapes one when merely viewing or listening to a story.  I search carefully in each news story for subtle sarcasm, for overt editorializing, and for contradictory statements.  None of those details are available in the sound bites of a news video.

As for the monotonous scattering of repetitive nouns and adjectives limning so many headlines, they simply insult my intelligence. Sadly, though, with regard to all too many members of the populace, I fear discernment in reading is a fast-fading skill.