Avid Readers, Occasional Bloggers

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Old School Blogging and Social Media Decluttering

As you might have guessed from my post on the nature of being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I have decided to blog about more than books.  The idea is to get the creative juices flowing and get back in the habit of posting by writing about my life and perspective. This is what blogging used to be about in many ways before niche blogs and social media changed the landscape.  Although, I suppose there are probably still a lot of personal blogs out there you just don’t run into them unless you see a link in your feeds or are friends with the blogger.

Speaking of social media, I am in the midst of a 30-day social media declutter exercise inspired by Cal Newport. I am trying to stay off Twitter and Facebook for the month of January.  I have been quite good at avoiding Facebook but have struggled to stay away from Twitter.  I have avoided political Twitter but have dipped into sports twitter.  Not as much as I used to (everyday) but frequently.  I am going to try and avoid even my sports list on Twitter for the remaining 15 days. Should be easier now that football is over for my teams <<sigh>>.

Look for some reflections on social media and this experience.  Maybe disconnecting from social media will also allow me to regain my focus and start posting regular book reviews as well.  I guess we shall see.

Question for publishers and publicists (and authors):

Are reviews at Goodreads and Amazon as valuable as blog posts?

Let’s say, hypothetically, someone didn’t want to write blog posts anymore. Would publishers send said person books if they posted reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and/or other assorted retail establishments or social media channels?

(if you don’t want to comment publicly you can use the Contact Form)

The Joy and Burden of Free Books

The question of ethics and blogging has been around since the medium (no, not that Medium) took off and it comes up periodically.  Since I am not very active in the blog world these days (I am lucky to post my reviews on a semi-regular basis let alone read and comment on other blogs) I am not real plugged into the day-to-day debates and discussions.

But I did stumble on a post from Bookish Girl on Tumblr that I thought worth commenting on.  Annie jumps off a post at A Reader’s Respite, among others, to discuss why she reviews books or why she will continue to “Blog for Books.”

At issue are programs like the recently revamped Blogging for Books that offer review copies but have very specific rules and restrictions.

This discussion prompted a manifesto/review policy from Bookish and an outraged rant from Michele Jacobsen. You can read their posts and judge their reactions for yourself.

But allow me to give you my take. I get to some degree why these things can be prickly.  Most book bloggers take pride in their independence and the time and energy the put into reviews.  Jumping through a bunch of hoops in order to acquire review copies feels demeaning; like you have been co-opted into a company’s marketing campaign rather than being given the chance to offer your honest opinion.

And I get that. No one wants to feel like they are being manipulated or not taken seriously. Blogging is hard work and publicists asking you to post a review on a blog or review site but also to Amazon AND on social media AND have a certain Klout score feels like overkill. Again, less like a review program and more like a marketing campaign.

But to me this is all very easily solved by not joining such programs. I guess I don’t understand the level of outrage. I understand the frustration of some but not the affront and anger.

If you want free books no strings attached then you must have a platform that publishers want access to and are willing to supply free books in order to gain it. On the other hand, if you want to get free books from Blogging for Books you have to follow their rules and procedures. Seems simple to me.

For the record, I am a member of Blogging for Books (and I think they even run ads here) but haven’t been active for years for the very reason that I requested a few books that I haven’t read and reviewed.  Plus, I was less interested in the books they were offering at the time (pre-Crown publishing revamp).  Am I outraged about the fact they won’t send me more books? No, they set up the process and I follow them or don’t participate.

Does the Klout thing seem silly? Sure, but publishers are looking for some way to measure reach in today’s metrics driven world.  They have every right to seek out the best strategy for getting publicity, yes? You can argue that Klout is a deeply flawed way to do that but the idea is perfectly understandable.  Unique visits arguably wouldn’t be any easier to measure and interpret.

Likewise, you have every right to see your book blogging as something you do out of the love of literature or other pure motives.  It might seem like bringing online booksellers and social media requirements into it injects filthy lucre into the equation.  But publishers are trying to sell books, authors are trying to make a living, etc.  Money and sales comes into it. That is just reality.

So what is my policy about reviews? Some thoughts:

– I make no promises about books that are simply sent to me. If I happen to pick it up great, if I don’t get to it, fine.

– I try to only requests books I want to read. And when I request a book I feel an extra sense of duty to read and review it if I possibly can. This seems like common courtesy.

– Alas, sometimes I request a book and don’t end up reading or finishing it. It happens. Sometimes I over-estimate what and how much I can read. Sometimes my mood and/or interests shift and what seemed like the perfect read suddenly seems less interesting. Sometimes I read a few chapters and the book just fails to grab me.

– I don’t blame publishers who are leery of sending me books if in their minds I don’t review enough of the books they send to me, or if my traffic too low, or “reach” too limited. They must make their life choices just like me. Given it is their job and my hobby, I give them a decent amount of leeway.

– I track what I read on Goodreads and post reviews here. Both auto post to Twitter and Facebook. Whether that has a particular value to publishers I don’t know but, again, I can see why they might factor that in.

– As to reviews, I write what I think. I don’t spin or sugar coat anything for the sake of greater access to books or authors. I do try to get a sense of who might like the book and why; or what the author was attempting and what might have gone wrong; or even why it didn’t work for me but might for others.

In the end what I post here is just my opinion and reactions on the books I read. And yes, access to free books plays an important role. I love reading and frankly can’t afford to buy the number of books I read.

And the fact that I still get access to free books brings a smile to my face to this day.  And talking to authors is always cool. But it is a fact that the more books you review, the bigger the audience you have, and the more books you want access to the more book blogging can feel like a job.

Most publishers are not going to willy-nilly send out books to anyone no matter what the request, platform, audience, etc. You have to make choices about which books you are going to review, what audience you want to attract, and what publishers and authors are gong to be attracted to that model.

These choices have consequences. I have an interest in theology but rarely write about it here.  Does it sting when I get turned down on NetGalley for a theology book I would really like to read? Sure, but that is the publisher’s call. I can see why they might look at this blog and decline to give me access.

And access to a great many books bring pressure too. When it comes to the point where it feel like you have more books than you can possibly read, a certain amount of joy is lost in buying or getting books. There is a pressure, and a healthy one for the most part, that you really should make a dent in the books you have before you go out and get more.

This is part of life and growing up I am afraid.  Tradeoffs and priorities are not fun and sexy but they are a reality. We all have choices to make.

Speaking of choices, I think I should bring this rambling post to a close.  What do you think? Should book blogging be pure love of reading or corrupted by financial motives? Or is it maybe some place awkwardly in between?

Jesus Is Better than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt

Twitter led me to Jonathan Merritt.  During a recent dust up in the seemingly never-ending culture war debate surrounding gay marriage I came across a rather heated debate in my Twitter feed.  It included Merritt along with supporters and critics. I was vaguely familiar with his work as a journalist and columnist but hadn’t read any of his books.  With this as a background Jesus Is Better than You Imagined intrigued me:

jesus-is-better-than-you-imaginedAfter following Jesus for nearly two decades, Jonathan Merritt decides to confront the emptiness of a faith that has become dry, predictable, and rote. In a moment of desperation, he cries out for God to show up and surprise him, and over the next year, God doesn’t disappoint.

In JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED, Jonathan shares vulnerable, never-before-shared stories of how he learned to encounter Jesus in unexpected ways. Through a 60-hour vow of silence in a desert monastery, he experiences Jesus in silence. When a friend dies of a rare disease, he sees Jesus in tragedy. Through confronting childhood sexual abuse, Jonathan discovers Jesus in honesty. In an anti-Christian-themed bar, he finds Jesus in sacrilege. And when he’s almost kidnapped in Haiti by armed bandits, he experiences Jesus in the impossible.

Though Merritt finds himself in places he never dreamed of, he doesn’t lose his way. Instead, these experiences force him back to the Bible, where he repeatedly offers fresh, sometimes provocative, interpretations of familiar passages. Along the way, he throws back the covers on the sleepy faith of many Christians, urging them to search for the Holy in their midst.

Conveniently, I was able to get a review copy from NetGalley so I could read it on my Kindle.  I found it to be an earnest and heartfelt exploration of Merritt’s spiritual journey but also an odd blend of Southern Baptist evangelical culture and progressive attempts to rework faith in light of modern experience and perspectives.

In some ways I can relate to the author’s perspective and exploration. I too grew up in an conservative evangelical household, although not a pastor’s son like Merritt and in the Midwest rather than the South, and often felt both attracted to and suffocated by that culture and world. Notably, I don’t share Merritt’s history of abuse which I am sure in some important ways colors all of his experiences.

The good: the honesty and good will that comes through. Merritt is sharing his journey and is willing to admit his faults, temptations, weakness, etc. I think many readers will find this refreshing and helpful; particularly if they have struggled with similar issues. Merritt clearly has a big heart and writes well about his experiences.

The bad: it struck me as another example of modern evangelicalism’s focus (particularly the progressive variation) on individual psychology and experience with all of scripture and faith seen through that lens. It is also often a rehash of the other obsession of modern evangelicalism: legalism versus grace. In his defense, if you grew up in this culture and time you can’t help but be engaged in the debate to some degree. But it strikes me as rather stale at this point.

This is not an academic book by any stretch of the imagination, nor did I expect it to be, but I nevertheless found some of the discussion oddly vague; particular when he is “reinterpreting” various Bible stories and passages.

For example (and admittedly this might be just an unfair offshoot of my peculiar biases and interests), Merritt offers no awareness of how something like the New Perspective on Paul, and the resulting debates, might change the discussion about the Pharisees, hypocrisy, and legalism. His approach is all mid-twentieth century southern evangelicalism.

And that is the problem I had.  It is an heartfelt, winsome, and at times engaging memoir but this short work feels a little thin by the end. If you like the author and/or his writing style, or wrestle with similar challenges, it is an easy read.  But I am not sure it ads much insight or clarity to theology, ecclesiology, or spiritual practice.

Writer's Block, Book Burnout and Podcasts

So content has been rather sparse here of late. Sorry about that.  I have started a new job and it is seemingly sucking all the energy out of my brain.  When I get home I just don’t have the inspiration to write reviews.  Add in the fact that I have been reading some complex non-fiction and I just procrastinate and put off trying to write anything.

I periodically get in a funk like this where nothing quite seems to “work” for me and I find myself reading three or four books at one time looking for something that will connect or get the juices flowing again; something that compels me to write because I want to get my opinion down rather than writing because I haven’t written anything here for a while. You have heard this before if you have been reading me for any length of time (I guess I am sorry about that too …).

What makes these episodes even more awkward is that I don’t have a lot of other hobbies. I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies nor do I play video games or have a lot of other distractions. So when books and reading are not working I really feel lost.  Maybe I should get some exercise or something. Go outside and breathe the fresh air … Nope, mostly I waste time on Twitter and Facebook.

Do you have these episodes where nothing you read seems to connect and you don’t feel like writing anything?

I have read a couple of short stories and some mythology  for young adults but haven’t been able to work up the energy to write about these books but will try to do so soon. These funks come and go.

The good news for you, dear reader, is that in an attempt to break out of this funk I decided to return to the podcast format and interview some authors. This week I will post interviews with Joseph Bottum, author of An Anxious Age, and talk with one of my favorite authors, Olen Steinhauer, about this latest book The Cairo Affair. Which what kinda ties the title of this post together in case you were wondering.

So I hope you will forgive the radio silence and come back for the podcasts with these interesting authors.  And, as always, thanks for reading.

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