Reading the Same Book?

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, as some readers know, I do read the reader reviews of my books, and occasionally, those of other writers. The one thing that strikes me consistently is that there is certainly a percentage of reader reviews where I’m left asking, “Did these people even read the same book?”

The answer is: They read the same assemblage of words, but not the same book.

How does this happen? Why does it happen so often when readers see exactly the same words on the page?

In the simplest terms, words on the page evoke not only their meanings, but the emotional connotations that accompany those meanings. But even meanings vary from reader to reader, and that’s scarcely surprising when you consider that most words have more than one dictionary definition. Then add to that the emotional responses that we all have to words and situations, and we’re bound to have different reactions.

As a writer, what bothers me about all this, I have to admit, is not the difference in the range of reaction to a book but the violence of the reaction by those who dislike a book. In more than 35 years as a professional writer, I’ve seldom ever seen a “positive” reaction to my books or those of any other author of the sort that says, “This is the world’s greatest book” But I have seen more than a few books, and many were not mine, with assessments like, “the most tedious book ever” or “the worst book I’ve ever read” or “totally unreadable.”

What I found most intriguing about these sorts of comments was that they usually occurred amid other comments that praised the depth of the book and the skill of the writer. In fact, they were more likely to occur with a book that other readers praised.

This would tend to support my long-time contention that any review [either by readers or critics] reveals at least as much about the reviewer as about the book being reviewed.

And, unhappily, that leaves us writers with yet another question: Did anyone read the books we wrote, or did they just read their interpretation of what we wrote?