Certainly there's an art to critiquing a book, one that I'm learning for myself and watching others do as well. In my first blog post I described critiquing a book as 'a sort of mental annotation', and in many senses it is. An annotation is simply the act of writing notes in the margins, whether it be an explanation of a particular passage, or pointing out a mistake, or interesting tidbits of trivia that enhance the text.
Perhaps the mark of a truly good book is when an author has tons of notes they would love to put in the margins. The more ability to write notes, the more thought goes into a story or teaching. It shows that an author has lived and breathed their subject for weeks and months, and they have something worthwhile to say on the subject.
But, while some annotations are fun, some are more than irritating. Snarky criticisms and endless nitpicking do nothing to enhance the story, and should be avoided it at all possible.
The house was asleep. The clock shone out at past midnight. After a fruitless chasing of sleep, I had just finished Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, and right underneath it lay The Hobbit--that mysterious gate to the world of Middle Earth, which I had heard was so enchanting and soul-sweepingly profound.
Evaluation? Certainly. But not nit-picking. More on that in a moment.
Then there's the other kind of evaluation--the kind that leaves you with a headache, and takes all the magic out of your favorite characters. Take Leslie S. Klinger's massive annotations of Sherlock Holmes, presented to the public on the occasion of his 150th birthday.
Most girls pin the medal of Best Hero on Sir Percy Blakeney, but I chose entirely different heroes during that 12-14 stage of hero-worship. After Alan Breck and Davie, I lived and breathed 221b Baker Street, and the Sherlock Holmes/Watson duo. You name the mystery, I could tell you exactly what it was about. I can still quote the scenes in which the hapless Watson suffers through an awful breakfast due to Holmes' interest in the final installment of a magazine romance. I even listened through all the cheesy old radio shows with the hair tonic commercials, because I enjoyed Holmes so much. (Even though Watson was the best by far of the two.)
I was quite excited to read Klinger's notes, and expected to get a wealth of informative information. No doubt I shall when I have the strength to try again. But for his birthday present, Leslie Klinger, among historical notes and various interesting tidbits, spends a great deal of time pointing out the inaccuracies, typos, scholarly criticisms and points where the plotting could have been improved. What purpose does it serve to try to make post-Reichenbach Holmes out as a fraud in the footnotes? And why must we pick apart the weak points of all of his deductions?
The purpose of an annotation (which is sometimes in the condensed form of a book review) is to build up the story and support the author, not to tear it to shreds.
The Point of It All
Needless to say, annotations aren't of earth-shattering importance. Some of them are good, some aren't, and if you don't like one then it's fairly easy to set the book aside and find a better edition. But as I thought over these experiences, I found a deeper moral in the tale. Namely, I need to be very careful how I criticize a book. It's more than an abstract specimen or solution; it's a window to the soul not only of the author, but of the readers love it. We must be very careful when we choose to make fun of literature or pull it all to pieces. A good joke isn't a problem, even in some cases at the book's expense. That's like laughing when movie continuity gets messed up. (Yes, The Two Towers had its amusing spots on that score.) But when gentle teasing turns into a cynical and obsessive enjoyment of pointing out everything wrong, then we may a problem that goes deeper than surface level evaluation.
Proverbs 16:21 says "The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction." When it is our duty to point out something wrong in a book--whether it be a moral judgement or poor literary quality, then it behooves us to be gracious in our speech, speaking the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15) When we do not, our readers won't learn from us. They'll be hurt and defensive.
We must not take excessive delight in pointing out error. It is our duty, assuredly, in such cases where it violates Christ, or when we need to call readers to a higher standard of excellence. But we should take delight, wherever we are able, in praising as much good as we can find in the books we read.
That must be why Doug Anderson's worked, and why Leslie Klinger's didn't. Because the former, while not disguising the fallibilities, did not allow them to detract from the story itself. And the latter took a fiendish delight in proving the "greatest consulting detective" wrong on every point possible.
The art of annotation: perhaps there's more to it than I thought.
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. ~Colossians 4:6
P.S. The poll is up 'til Tuesday--so until then you can cast your vote for the next article series on My Lady Bibliophile! :)