From View to Review

One of the things I routinely do is review new books for a publishing house dedicating to making these reviews available to the reading public.  Of course, I am not the only reviewer.  In fact, I have no clue how many reviewers there are.  I review new religion books.  And of course, I only do certain kinds of books.  I am willing to review books that deal with the New Testament, the history of Christianity and contemporary spirituality.  I am not an expert in Buddhist studies or Islamic philosophy, so even the books I review have a narrower range than you might expect.

It is something I have done for a long time now.  It does take time to read a book and then think about it long enough to write a cogent review that might help some reader decide whether they want to buy that book.  I take seriously the charge I have been given.  If I write a lousy review on some book, the author of that book is going to suffer on book sales.  In many cases I don’t know the author, but I am influencing his or her career!

One of the reasons I like doing it is I am given opportunities to see new scholarship that I probably would not otherwise see.  The way it works is simple.  This publishing house gets books from all sorts of other publishers.  They send me a book.  I get to keep the book.  In return I write a review and that is published.  Countless people read my review and decide whether they are going to buy the book.  In the process I have read many books I am delighted to have in my library and other books I would never buy or read again.

I have never really thought much about the process I go though, but when I gave it some thought, I was intrigued.  I would like to offer the details of that process.  Then I want to suggest it is a bit like making meaning in our lives.  That might seem like an odd connection, but bear with me.

Since I still receive an actual book through the mail, it all begins with opening the mailbox.  It is very much like getting a surprise gift in the mail.  Typically it is wrapped in a brown recyclable container.  I know there is a book inside and I know it will tell me when I have to send electronically my review.  So the first step is to rip open the package and see what I have.  It is like having multiple Christmases!

The review process is actually two-fold.  The first part is viewing the new book.  In the beginning it is literally viewing it.  I pull it from the package, read the title, look at the authors name.  I have seen books that were barely one hundred pages and some they send me might be four or five hundred pages!  I quickly look at quotations on the back; I look for details about the author.  I see whether there is an index, etc.  All these have a bearing on whether the book is going to be useful.

The viewing process gets more serious.  I begin reading.  Literally, my eyes see letters; letters become words; words become sentences and sentences become ideas.  And then I mentally begin to form my “view” of the book.  What that means is I begin making assumptions: it is a good book, a hard book, an insightful book, etc.  It is fascinating that I can move from letters to a view---a perspective on the book.  If I know the author, I may “view” it differently.  In fact, that is what prejudice does to us: it affects the way we view things.

Now that I have my view, I can write a review.  I tell people what I think and why I think that way.  For example, my review might say a book stinks and I offer compelling reasons why it stinks.  That is probably going to be a disaster for book sales!  So I try to be fair.

And now we move to life.  Of course, we look at things---at our lives, other peoples’ lives, etc.  We view things and form perspective, opinion and outlook.  We develop tendencies, i.e. rosy outlook or gloomy outlook.  How we view things often shapes how we experience life.  Our tendency is to make the way we view things into facts.  The way we view things becomes the “just way things are.”

Often we fail to move to the other level: we seldom review things.  We don’t reflect on our views and we never formulate a review.  I think this is what living the spiritual life asks us to do.  The spiritual life, as I see it, needs to build in regular reflection time.  It might be called prayer or meditation.  It might be other kinds of spiritual disciplines.  I’ll use myself as an example.

In my theological view of things, God is active in my life.  And God can be a transforming Presence.  God might be so active in life that I will change the way I view things.  To illustrate: I might have seen myself as a worthless, sinful kind of guy.  God’s transforming Spirit goes to work in me and I begin to see myself as a chosen son of God.  I review the work of the Spirit and realize I view myself and my world in very different ways.  That is something to write about!

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