Flyleaf reviews: a lost tradition in West Tisbury
When I first started using the West Tisbury Library, the chart pasted inside the back cover of each book had not only the date stamps but also the names of the borrowers. In those long ago days no one seemed to worry about privacy laws, and it was interesting to see the names of people I knew who had read the very copy I held in my hand (some of whom had since ceased to need a library card). Even more charming, I would occasionally find on the flyleaf a sentence or two saying what a previous borrower thought of the book.
I haven't run across a flyleaf review in many years, but when West Tisbury was a much smaller town with a much smaller library, it seems that people used to jot down a sentence or two on the flyleaf when they returned a book to the library. It wasn't a long review, and it didn't pretend to be scholarly or authoritative, but it was written by a person you knew and whose tastes in reading you might have an idea about. So, if Dionis Riggs wrote that a book was, "Interesting reading, worth a look," you might give it a try. And if Claire Duys said that a book portrayed Belgium accurately, you knew that she knew what she was talking about. And if Tom Maley said that a book was, "A little disappointing, not as good as [the writer's] other books," you might keep browsing - unless, of course, Milton Mazer had later added, "I disagree, this is even better than [one of the earlier books]." After you finished the book, you'd have something new to talk about with the reviewers when you ran into them at the post office.
I just finished "Five Skies," by Ron Carlson, a writer I had never heard of. I was so taken by it that I looked long and hard at all that white space inside the front cover. But I refrained. Perhaps the library staff of the 21st century would take a dim view of my defacing town property in this way. Perhaps my fellow Athenians would think it presumptuous of me to offer unrequested advice. So I compromised on a post-it note stuck to the front cover, saying that I thought it excellent and very well-written.
The old flyleaf reviews were only about the same length as a post-it note, but here is a longer one for you:
"Five Skies" is about three men building a stunt ramp at the rim of a canyon on a remote ranch in Idaho. The other characters in the novel are the ranch owner, who is paying for the crazy project, and a bunch of people from the not-so-near-by town. The three men, strangers to one another, are all troubled by past disasters, and the novel weaves the three back-stories into the summer-long adventure.
The descriptions of Idaho are pure Hemingway. The construction project unfolds in ways that will interest any reader with a little gear-head in him (or her). Each character talks in a way that is so individual and believable that it sometimes made me smile. Carlson, I was stunned to find, can make construction-talk ring true without relying on profanity. "Five Skies" is a gritty book with a fair amount of violence, but the characters' lives and relationships are intense enough to make this the kind of emotional novel that is supposed to appeal to women.
West Tisbury has moved on. These days the due date list in the back doesn't tell you who else has read the book. There are no more mini-reviews on the flyleaves. If you want reviews, there are some printed on the dust jacket, and if those aren't enough, five minutes with Google would find others out there in the blogosphere.
If my fellow Athenians wanted local reviews, I suppose the library could put a forum on its web site (www.wtfpl.org), and maybe a sticker on the spine to say the book has an entry there. Still, the old small-town tradition of writing on the flyleaf was a fine idea. I wish the library board would encourage people to start doing it again.
Dan Cabot, a contributing editor at The Times, lives in West Tisbury.