Reviewing Books and Burning Bridges

It’s pronounced Lankisstur (All rights reserved)

The first book I reviewed was an unsolicited book from the author about an Appalachian Trail through hike. I didn’t give a rating here on TSM but I did say whether I would recommend it. I didn’t recommend that book. I also gave it two stars on Amazon (which at the time was a mere bookseller with a growing online department store,) and I got a terse email from the author about that.

He complained that my review seemed like a four-star review or at least three and that I just didn’t love his book. I explained my case and held my ground. Later, I changed the stars to three. I’m not entirely sure why I did that. I haven’t revised a rating, unless there was an error, since.

I have been reviewing climbing and adventure books and even articles since 2010. I served as a pre-reader for the Banff Mountain Literature Competition for many years. But after some evaluation, I think my reviews need some improvements for you, the readers that want to read these books but don’t write reviews. Let me explain…

I believe that every book should do something new. A new topic is valuable. Two writers can write about the same event so long as the perspectives are unique; there is nothing worse than redundancy about reporting and retelling. The exception here are updates and revisions on books. For instance, there are a lot of books on the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine. The coffeetable book rich in photographs and pictures of artifacts added something. A freshly written history for a new, younger audience might add something for that generation, but I doubt that I would think the book is significant or unique. This is what I have always been looking for as a starting point for my quest.

You may not know this: I am on a long-term reading adventure to identify the climbing classics. (Well, the English language ones anyway.) It means I will continue to read a lot of climbing and mountaineering books for many years to come. The genre is bigger and deeper than most non-climbers, and climbers for that matter, might imagine, despite being rather niche. I keep a list of books to read (and acquire) that I call my Short Long List and it has been modified and updated only a little in the last couple of years.

But there is a problem. The Short Long List has books mostly ten years old and older. The short lists of the English language mountain literature competitions, Boardman Tasker, Kendall Mountain Festival, and the Banff Mountain Literature Competition, include about a dozen books annually. I like to read a few of them too, in addition to my search for the classics. This makes my progress slower than it already was.

For example, I am currently reading a new book, Native Air, a novel by Jonathan Howland (2022). After that, I am reading Meghan Ward’s Lights to Guide Me Home (2022). Then I am returning to my Short Long List and finishing Paul Pritchard’s Deep Play (1997). After that, I am picking up Bernadette McDonald’s biography of Elizabeth Hawley, by the original title, Call Me in Kathmandu (2005). I also mix in reading for work and my other hobbies, like baseball, golf, and history, so things naturally move slowly.

To give you my take on why the book is significant, especially these newly published books, doesn’t seem entirely as relevant. I think you should know if it is significant but you probably also want to know if it’s worth buying and reading. So I am starting to change the way I do my book reviews.

As a principle, readers of reviews need to trust the reviewer. This means I must be honest, and that I shouldn’t sidestep criticism or things that I didn’t like (I haven’t meant to, but in the past I usually did.) I would acknowledge those things, but I would usually only focus on the significance of the story or the record of the event. I will still pay attention to the significance but there is more that you need to have disclosed and I will work harder to do that. (In fact, I once lost an opportunity to have one of my book reviews in Alpinist Magazine because of that old approach.)

Early morning blogging session (All rights reserved)

So that brings me to clear and transparent ratings. While I might recommend that you read the book, where does it stand in terms of rating or score? In the past I only posted a score-out-of-five rating on book seller websites or on Goodreads.com (or just Goodreads.) But I’ve learned that readers find it helpful about what to expect. Theoretically, I could praise and recommend two books but give one a four and one a five.

I am still in the process of determining my rating system. Stars are popular but not relevant on TSM. I use the tag line: Life undimmed through mountains and books. Arising out of the mundane things of work-commute-repeat is the ultimate goal here. Would matches or match lights or flames make sense?

I will also start posting my reviews on Goodreads as well, going forward. Although you found TSM many others haven’t and some of the reviews on the books I have read don’t comment on the matters I think are important. So it’s time to share in that market.

In my reviews, there is only one I am sad about and think that a rating could have helped. I liked the book and reference it relatively frequently since it covers the main story of one of favorite climbers. I criticized it for being written for too general of an audience and I recommended alternatives. It was fair. But later, that author offered to send me her latest book but I never received it. Did she read the review after offering me a copy? Did I burn that bridge inadvertently? Well, that’s the game. I just went ahead and bought the book.

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