I pondered deeply this past week about what I could and should write as a first post of this blog. Some have advised me to get on with the reviews immediately, others thought it interesting to begin with a top lists post. Then I had a eureka moment: I asked myself, what is the most important thing that the readers need to know before everything else? And it came to me, that I can do hundreds of critiques and lists, and it wouldn’t matter if the readers did not understand what kind of reviewer I was, and what kind of books I liked — in short, how I rate books.
Everyone has their own rating system, some more different than others. And there’s really no perfect formula to this. But this blog will be informed by my own personalized criteria, one that I developed over my years of reading and journaling. Below are the three characteristics I mainly look for in a book:
1.) Epistemologically tickling
Laksmi Pamuntjak coined this expression in her book The Birdwoman’s Palate. And now I can’t stop using it.
An epistemologically tickling book, for me, is one that stimulates your curiosity of knowledge. It activates your intellectual senses and pushes the limits of what you know. Just as when you are physically tickled, this book makes you at once jubilant and uncomfortable — jubilant in face of something beautiful, sublime even, and yet uncomfortable, for confronted with something unfamiliar.
Did the book shake my perspectives on certain things? Did it make me question the meaning of mundane things I take for granted? Did it show me a facet to human nature that is often hard to talk about, let alone illustrate? If I can’t stop asking questions even after finishing the book, it gets a 10.
2.) Stylistically appealing
When Philippine author VJ Campilan described the fear of the main character through these words, there was no putting the book down:
So here I remain by the shorelines, staring out into the ocean. I envy its writhing, the self-assuredness in which it sweeps itself across such an expanse. It must be doing all the screaming for the entire world.– All my Lonely Islands
The metaphor of the waves that come crashing to the daunting ocean makes me feel as small as the character does. Some authors just have a way with words. Remember the epic consonance that begins Lolita?
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps
down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee, Ta.
Books that read smoothly get a 10. Smoothly does not mean easily, but fluidly, like music flowing to the ears. It could be quick, punctuated sentences that heighten the suspense of a thriller, or long, intricate ones that characterizes the voice of a sage butler (yes, I’m talking about Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day).
3.) Effective execution-wise
I don’t rate based on the originality of the content. In fact, a lot of good books out there resist a coherent content (I dare you to summarize Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in one sentence!) The plot can be so original and yet fail to pique my interest. Inversely, it can be so mundane and yet, keep me hooked.
Think back to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style where he wrote 99 times about a character, a train, and a button of a shirt. (Okay there’s a little bit more than that to the story, just a little bit…) So banal, yet classic.
The story can be as out-of-this world as Borges’ or as simple as Queneau’s, but what I look out for is the storytelling. You can have the best melody in the world, but with poor singing skills, the audience will still walk out.
What else to expect
While these three criteria would be at the center of my reviews, I will also include the following elements:
- Expectations from the book (awards, other reviews, book cover etc.)
- Plot summary
- What to like and what not to like
- Overall rating
Do we look at the same criteria? What criteria is the most important to you? Do comment below about your own rating system!