On the drive to Missoula I listened to a segment of This American Life that really had me laughing. Michael Schulman, who wrote a book about Meryl Streep, talks about his experience reading customer reviews of his book online. He found himself getting fixated on the negative reviews, mentally arguing with the people that wrote them. He wasn’t able to shrug them off until he clicked on the profile of one of these critics. Looking at what they liked and didn’t like, it was clear their tastes were nothing like his own, and he no longer had to concern himself with their opinions. In one example, a woman named Kathy found his book boring, but gave top reviews to a polka-dot cupcake rack. “Perfection to Kathy is this cupcake stand filled with cupcakes with polka dots. And my book did not give her the same feeling, and that’s okay.” You can’t please them all.

This whole thing amused me to no end. Eventually, inevitably, I had to wonder if any strangers had reviewed my book. (It is self-published, unpromoted, and largely unknown.) On Amazon I found four reviews, all generous plugs from people I know. Thanks, guys. From there I found my way to goodreads.com, a site I didn’t know much about. It appeals to a more literary set, which I took as a good sign.

Sure enough, my book was on there. Three people had rated it, giving Outside Ourselves an average of 2.67 out of 5 stars. As we all know, that’s a pretty bad rating, enough to make you think twice before buying something. But I was mostly impressed that the site knew about my book at all, or that people I didn’t know had found it and read it. There were two reviews, one positive and the other negative. Here’s the negative:

“The subject about my favorite place to get away sounded intriguing, but I found the ‘cultural critique’ to be too much of a downer. I was hoping for a more positive, spiritual view of the GYE, but this left me feeling like that isn’t possible today because of all the things wrong one encounters along the way. I only made it halfway through the book before I had to put it down.”

My reaction was fairly neutral. I never doubted that some people would feel that way: any time you idealize something, reality becomes your enemy.

Goodreads seemed interesting enough so I started to make an account. First, I had to rate 20 books, to give the algorithm a version of myself in books. This was fun at first. I found myself trying to portray my tastes in a smart and well-rounded way. But by book six or so, I started losing confidence in my rating system. In hindsight, it says something that there were no directions for rating a book– no criteria to keep in mind, no standards for what your rating should mean. It’s just assumed that, as per the name of that TAL episode, “Everyone’s a Critic,” and knows exactly what to do when the scales of justice are placed before them. And every book has its rightful place on a scale from one to five.

Some books I rated seemed to deserve high marks for being old and significant, even if they are very imperfect. Some I like for inexplicable reasons, or they relate to pet interests of mine. Some are unsurprising but well done. I wondered if I’d be able to go back and change ratings as I thought more about them, and at book twelve or so, I needed a break. Pushing through twenty books that way felt wrong. And being away from the page didn’t make the five star system more intuitive. Soon enough, I thought, to hell with it: it doesn’t feel good to do this.

Needless to say, I found myself thinking about my book’s negative, two-star review in the following days. My earliest reaction was the best. I thought: my book is doing just what I wanted it to. Joseph, from Salt Lake City, treats the Greater Yellowstone as a “get away,” and wanted this view affirmed. My book told him that all is not well, even in this large, protected place.

Some people don’t want to look behind the veneer. Rather than educate themselves, or build complexity into their fandom of this celebrity landscape, or make themselves into advocates where advocates are needed, they might decide to hold to a shallow, rose-tinted fantasy. If the Greater Yellowstone is facing challenges, Joseph doesn’t want to know about them. He’s not looking for a real, living, messy, modern landscape.

It was hard to write about the problems of this place. But it was a deliberate decision– a responsibility, even– and I knew that it meant facing an uphill battle in terms of finding a publisher and readers. In other words, I was willing to forego compensation in order to say what I thought needed to be said. The “funny” thing about Joseph’s review, if I may use that word, is that what he didn’t like about my book– the “cultural critique” aspect; the dissection of “modern paradoxes”– is emphasized in the description on the back cover. He accuses my book of being what it says it is.

I don’t begrudge Joseph his opinion. It’s perfectly honest. (I can even look at selfishly and say, there will be some people who read that review and think: like, “This book is pissing off just the sort of people it should be pissing off! I should read it!”) On a different not, I have to wonder: should you be allowed to review books that you don’t finish reading? Despite what he says, I suspect he read far less than half. The first section is intentionally pessimistic, but it doesn’t stay that way. In one interview, for example, a reviewer began, “Your book is filled with uplifting observations…”

Which brings me back to the rating. Does two stars for a “downer” book mean you think all books should be uplifting? What about hard truths? With a big-circulation book, you can expect the ratings to average out. But with a self-published, labor-of-love-type book, one person– who doesn’t know the subject, and in fact doesn’t want to– can stand by their ignorance and effectively shoot the messenger.

Lastly, wouldn’t it be nice if the internet forced us to talk about these things, rather than giving us numbers to slap on each other before walking away?

Us, said Camier.

Mercier raised his glass.

I didn’t mean that, said Camier. Mercier set down his glass.

But why not, after all? said Camier.

So they raised their glasses and drank, both saying at the same instant or almost, here’s to you. Camier added, and the success of our—. But this was a toast he could not complete. Help me, he said.

I can think of no word, said Mercier, nor any set of words, to express what we imagine we are trying to do.

–Samuel Beckett, Mercier and Camier

We believed once in the victory of truth; but we do not now. We believed in our fellow men; but we do not now. We believed in goodness; but we do not now. We were zealous for justice; but we are not so now. We trusted in the power of kindness and peaceableness; we do not now. We were capable of enthusiasm; but we are not so now. To get through the shoals and storms of life more easily we have lightened our craft, throwing overboard what we thought could be spared. But it was really our stock of food and drink of which we deprived ourselves; our craft is now easier to manage, but we ourselves are in decline.

–Albert Schweitzer

And this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.

Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.

He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.


The Cage in Search of a Bird, by Robert Pack

My destiny is not my own
Said the cage in search of a bird.
I am defined by what I do,
And when I’m empty, I’m absurd.
So I will find a willing bird
Who knows the limit of the skies
With wings that feel the chain his song
Must hold him in until he dies.
And he will make my bars his home
Beyond all vistas of the air,
And sing his song to me alone
Inside the echoes of despair.
And if some other bird should stop
While flying south and look and spin
About and say, “You can’t get out,”
He would reply, “You can’t get in.”

“One of the reasons that knowledge is in a state of useless overproduction is that it is strewn all over the place, spoken in a thousand competitive voices. Its insignificant fragments are magnified out of proportion, while its major and world-historical insights lie around begging for attention. There is no throbbing center. …There has to be revealed the harmony that unites many different positions, so that the ‘sterile and ignorant polemics’ can be abated.

“I have had the growing realization over the past few years that the problem of man’s knowledge is not to oppose and to demolish opposing views, but to include them in a larger theoretical structure.”

–Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 1973