I was cleaning out an old binder this morning and I discovered notes from January when I participated in the Bill Morris Seminar. It’s always a challenge reading my scribbles and deciphering meaning from my half-formed sentences and diagrams, but in reviewing my notes five months later I was able to reflect on my biggest takeaways from the experience. Here are the portions of my notes that especially had me thinking then (and rethinking now):
On evaluating books in general:
First, you need to know yourself (your genre and aesthetic biases as well as your priorities). This way you won’t let them blind you and you’ll be able to help point out what others might not see at a first glance/read/listen. Also, remember that the book is usually not intended FOR YOU.
On noticing errors/inaccuracies:
Even if you are an expert in the subject, the author (even a sloppy one) has probably done a lot more work than you. Triple check and always give the book the benefit of the doubt. If you do find an error, ask yourself: Does the mistake ruin the whole story? Don’t automatically write off an entire book because of one mistake. Every book has errors-you just don’t notice them. Don’t let your expertise get the best of you: you don’t know a lot more than you do know.
On the “is it offensive?” question:
Keep in mind that the term “offensive” creates an objective stance. “Offensive” is dependent on context. Instead, ask yourself: Does the book need to offend to do its job? Is the book doing what it does with integrity? Evaluate each book on its own standard (see: Jonathan Hunt’s dog show metaphor). Get to the heart about what its job is and then think through as many lenses as possible, but don’t approach a book looking for flaws. That’s not fair. Assume it is great until you feel otherwise. If you allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised, the evaluative experience will be lots more fun.
These tips came up mainly in discussions about writing professional reviews or serving on book award committees, but I think they extend that realm for sure. A big thank you to all of the evaluators, teachers, and librarians who volunteered to lead the Seminar in Philly. If anyone is thinking about attending next time, contact me and I’ll be happy to sell you on applying for it! You can also read other reflections from my fellow participants over at the ALSC blog.