What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

Everybody Wants to Be a Critic

In American society today, critics are right up there with pundits, experts, and talk radio hosts as the people whose opinions we most want to hear. Roger Ebert is a movie critic. He tells us what he thinks about movies and then we all go out and watch them — or make fun of other people who watch them. Sister Wendy Beckett is an art critic. She tells us what she thinks about art and we all go to museums on Sunday afternoon. Well, not all of us, I guess, especially during football season.

Speaking as someone who loves sharing his ideas with others in the hope that they will use them, I suspect that one of the great attractions of being a critic is influence. Critics are tastemakers: they tell us what we like, what we should like, and why.

When we say that someone is being “critical” we tend to think that he or she is being harsh, negative, or even mean. When we think of “critics” we think of crusty old curmudgeons passing judgment on the works of others. (So why do we all want to be critics again? Oh yeah, influence.) In fact, when I looked up the word online, the first definition listed was “inclined to judge severely and find fault.” But there’s a second meaning that I like better, one that is truer to what the word meant when it was coined 2500 years ago.

The word “critical” comes from the Greek word “kritikos” which means “able to discern.” To be able to discern things means “to see with the eyes or the intellect, to recognize and comprehend.” Now that sounds much better, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why we listen to critics, because they can see things we can’t.

If you’ve ever read a book and had an opinion on it, you’re a book critic. From some reason, most human beings can’t help but make critical judgments about the books they read. But what kind of judgments can a book critic make? And how do critics go about making them?

Questions: The Critic’s Best Friend

When I was in college, my favorite teacher was Dr. Anthony Canedo. He was also my favorite book critic because he always seemed to have an answer for the really hard questions in the hardest books he made us read.

One day I asked him, “Dr. Canedo, how do you always know the answers?” He looked at me and smiled, “I ask the right questions.” And then he winked at me, patted me on the shoulder, and went back to his office.

What I learned from Dr. Canedo is that there are many ways of looking at a text and that for each of those ways, certain questions occur that if answered provide great insight.

To help kids find answers in the books they read, I came up with The Five Big Questions:

Big Question #1: What makes this book good? I think critics have a responsibility to add value to our experience of a book. And I think they can add more value when, as the old song says, they accentuate the positive.

Big Question #2: What would make this book better? As a critic, it’s important to be honest. And honestly, some parts of some books are pretty bad. Like the impartial umpire behind the plate, you gotta call’em as you see’em when you’re a critic. If you don’t, people won’t trust your opinions and you’ll lose your influence.

Big Question #3: What’s the one most important thing the author wants you to know? This is the main idea. It’s almost as though you could squeeze a whole book down to a single sentence and say that’s what it was all about.

Big Question #4: Why did the writer write this? Why did the author bother to tell this story? What is it about this particular story that the author thought was so important?

Big Question #5: What does the audience need to know to understand and enjoy the book? Sometimes, the critic’s job is to unlock a mystery within a book by supplying an extra piece of information most readers don’t see. This is, in my opinion, what critics do best, and why they are so essential to our appreciation of art and of the world.

Getting Started

The best way to learn how to use Five Big Questions is to ask them of yourself and the pieces you write. Some of the questions, like questions 3 and 4, will be easier to answer for your own pieces than for the work of other writers. But questions 1, 2, and 5 will probably harder.