Reviewing Expectations

I was idly coveting Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy: A Russian Life on Amazon the other day when one of the customer reviews struck me as particularly strange. Someone called Big Jim posted the following:

I must admit that this took a bit of getting through. But then, given the subject matter this was only to be expected. There is no doubt that Tolstoy stands as a giant of world literature and this book certainly does him justice but having just finished the recent first part of Mark Twain’s autobiography I missed the wit and effervescence of that book. It is fair to say that there aren’t many laughs here. However it IS very interesting, not just about Tolstoy’s life but also about Russia in the 19th and early 20th century.

It struck me particularly strongly, as I have felt myself fall into similar traps in the past. There is an enormous temptation to judge a book not in terms of its contents, but in terms of the expectations you had of it before starting. Big Jim here seems, for some reason, to have expected this literary biography to have been a frothy, funny work, and to have been a bit disappointed when it turned out to be a literary biography.

Obviously some preconceived expectations of books are valid. You might reasonably expect a book to be well-written, well researched, free from errors of any kind, and to live up to the promise of its blurb, title, or of your previous knowledge of the writer. For example, you might judge a book harshly if it was called An Illustrated Investigation of the Origins of the Boer War and it turned out to be the ghostwritten autobiography of Kevin Pieterson. But I have only just become aware of my own tendency to have Big Jim expectations of things. I recently reviewed Ancient Worlds by Richard Miles over at Bookgeeks, which wasn’t the book I was expecting at all. I was hoping for a much more detailed exploration of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian side of things, and less of the Greek and Roman stuff everyone pretty much already knows. I stand by my review, but I was aware while I was writing that I had judged the book in terms of what I wanted it to be, on a personal level, rather than by what it said it was going to be. In the latter terms, the book is perfectly serviceable. It only failed me in terms of my own, somewhat unrealistic expectations.

Big Jim goes rather to extremes on the Amazon page. It’s not only unfair, it’s downright bizarre to complain that Bartlett isn’t as funny as Mark Twain. I doubt if injecting the maximum amount of humour into her book was at the top of Bartlett’s list of priorities when she was writing. But his review shows the importance of analysing your own expectations before coming to judgement. I’m certainly going to keep a close eye on my own Big Jim tendencies from now on.

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The End of Days

After a splendid Christmas, I am returning to the normal world in an even more apocalyptic frame of mind than usual. I am an unapologetic fan of Christmas in all its tinselly sparkly silly-games naffness. Those of a Scroogular bent, who mutter darkly about consumerism and outdated religious celebrations and so forth miss out on the fact that while all this is reasonably true, none of it is the point. The point is having a big meal with people you love and giving them presents. As you can see, the Christmas spirit is still alive in me (outliving my resolutions, which vanished inside a box of After Eights last night).

Anyway, despite these lingering festive feelings, I can’t help but be alerted to the clear signs of the apocalypse that have occurred in recent weeks. I’m not talking about the mass deaths of birds in Falkoeping and Arkansas, though this is undoubtedly a bit weird, but about two other signs: firstly, the closure of Prospero’s Books in Crouch End. Crouch End losing its proper bookshop is like the ravens fleeing the Tower of London: an obvious portent of doom. The manager cites a massive rent hike and competition from Amazon as the main reasons for closure. I am considering a move to Hay-on-Wye, or, far better, Wigtown in Galloway, where they have a more acceptable bookshop-to-head-of-population ratio.

The second Sign is the news that universities will be awarding marks to students who show ‘corporate skills’. This alone is enough to have me leaving a glass of sherry and some biscuits each night for when the Messiah comes down the chimney, blowing his referee-whistle to indicate the End of Days. I think very soon the day will come when the concept of a degree will be entirely divorced from that of education, shifting into the realm of qualification. It will prove not that the student in question has learned anything about English Literature, or Anthropology, or whatever, but will just show that they are reasonably well-trained candidates for future employment, given their presentation skills, their knowledge of Team Building, or whatever other bollocks forces its way on to the curriculum.

Rather than any attempts at repentance, I have decided to spend the world’s last hours reading the stack of interesting books I got for Christmas, including The Great Empires of the Ancient World. What always strikes me about these civilisations is the paradox in the way we think about them. We call them ‘ancient’, though it’s the Sumerians and the Parthians and the Minoans who were the young worlds, the very newest. Their remnants may be decaying gently in museums and galleries, but ours is more truly the ancient, crumbling civilisation.