Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Objective validation

I tend to read a lot of reviews, although I often get the feeling that I do it differently than most everybody else. In theory, reviews exist primarily to help people decide where and when to spend their precious money and time. If a book or movie or album or whatever sounds good based on the review, the reader of said review is more likely to pick up a copy or shell out for a ticket &c. If the review is negative, and the reader identifies enough with the reviewer to suppose they too would not enjoy the work for the same reasons, then the person may reconsider going to all the trouble of checking it out for themselves. And I suspect that pretty frequently there are cases where a person is bound and determined to, for instance, go to the movies on Friday night and it just becomes a question of which movie to go see, with the respective reviews serving as a guide.

On the other hand, I very rarely go to the movies, and when I do it’s because there’s a very specific movie coming out which I would go watch no matter what kind of reviews it was getting (see: Green Lantern). And therefore I often don’t concern myself with the reviews of something I’m intending to check out, because it won’t make much difference anyway, at least not in terms of the go-see-it-or-don’t binary. It might make a difference as to how I perceive the movie, comparing my own thought processes with whatever I’ve internalized from the review, and that’s yet another reason to avoid the review in the first place. (Plus, it practically goes without saying, there’s the whole desire to see things as spoiler-free as possible in this day and age.) So no reviews, beforehand at any rate; I have been known to track down reviews after I see a movie and I’ve formed my own opinions about it, just to see how they align (or don’t) with others.

So all these reviews I’m reading are by and large for things I will never have time to see or read or listen to. They’re not for evaluation, but for information and entertainment. I like feeling like I at least know the basics of what’s out there in the multiplexes and bookstores and on the radio, and I enjoy a well-written reaction piece because that’s just the way my brain works. And it is something of a guilty pleasure to read the really catty takedowns, too. I love review sites that give letter grades in addition to 500-word write-ups, because I go straight for the D’s and F’s in search of some amusing examinations of how and why creative works fail.

Of course, all of the rules above are bound to have exceptions, and the one I’ve been slowly working my way towards concerns the newest installment of Stephen King’s Dark Tower (which, by the by, I got my copy of from Amazon on Monday). I ran across a review of The Wind Through the Keyhole at the beginning of the week and I went ahead and read it, simply because at this point I think I’m so immersed in my own Dark Tower quest (re-reading all seven original novels plus reading the latest and eighth-est) that the whole enterprise has acquired its own kind of gravity that just draws things in. As it turns out, I’m glad that I checked out the review, for a couple of reasons.

One is that the review was generally positive and, obsessive gravitational pull notwithstanding, that’s kind of a relief. The Dark Tower is the biggest of the three series in my re-visiting attempts for this year and I would hate to think I’m putting all that effort into something with continuously diminishing returns. The reviewer also acknowledged that The Dark Tower kind of loses its way a bit towards the end, never really derailing completely but never quite coming together as satisfyingly as one might hope. So it was certainly possible that Keyhole could have been yet another piece of evidence suggesting King should have quit while he was ahead. But apparently not, as the newest addition to the saga is a return to the more workable elements of the whole crazy cosmology.

The other benefit is that the review pinpointed exactly when I should plan on reading the new book. I already knew that Keyhole took place somewhere in the middle of The Dark Tower (without getting too much into specifics, the very nature of the story makes it exceedingly difficult to make much out of a prequel to the first book or a sequel to the seventh) but I wasn’t sure exactly how it was positioned. For all I knew, it could have fleshed out something that happened between any two of the seven previously-published volumes, or between two chapters in one of them. But now I know that it slots in between books four and five, which is good timing since I’m a couple of days away from finishing book three on the re-read. I might have been tempted to go straight from The Wastelands to The Wind Through the Keyhole if only to try to figure out if I had already gotten past the point of the journey the new book covers. Or, I might have convinced myself that I should read volumes one through seven contiguously, and then and only then move on to the most recent addition. But now I’m pretty sure Keyhole is intended to go in the middle (and if I’m wrong, it’s not like the endings of things can be spoiled for me, since I’ve already read the rest of the series once) so I can focus on finishing the third book, getting my hands on the fourth book, and reading that before cracking open the new stuff.

Just as well, really, because as I reminded myself this morning when I flipped to the last page of book three just to get a page count for how much I have left, I was reminded that book three literally ends in mid-scene with an unapologetic cliffhanger that resolves at the outset of book four. I remember the passage of about five years between the first time I read book three and book four finally coming out and making its way into my hands. I’m deeply thankful I don’t have to go through that part all over again.

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