I admit it: I am a Malcolm Gladwell fan girl. I don’t stalk his blog or anything, but I’ve read all his books – two of them twice – and found them all fascinating. I recently reread Outliers: The Story of Success, and was giving some thought to the notion of expertise. If you haven’t read it, or aren’t familiar with the idea, the whole book discusses at length the idea that in order to be an expert at anything at all, you need to put in ten thousand hours of work. Talent is important, but mostly because it fuels hard work.
The whole thing can make you feel a little inadequate; it’s a little too late for most of us to become the next Bill Gates/Beatles/Canadian hockey sensation. But as I gave it some thought, I realized that I actually had spent at least ten thousand hours doing something: Reading. It may not sound like a big deal; everybody reads, right? But there’s reading, and then there’s Reading. For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Reader-with-a-capital-R. When I was eight, I won the library summer reading contest because I read more books than any other kid (over seventy, if memory serves). My own library wasn’t quite adequate for my purposes (and if they had inter-library loan in 1978, I hadn’t heard of it) so my mom would drive me to several other libraries in the county in order to feed the beast. Even as a teenager, what I liked best about summer was that I could read as much as I wanted. I haunted the local bookstores, so familiar with the fiction section that I could tell when they added something new. I faked sick for a week because I was reading The Far Pavilions and didn’t want to go to school. My mom thought I had mono.
And guess what I was doing when I wasn’t reading? Writing. I started a journal when I was in eighth grade, and I wrote in it every day until I was nineteen. Every single day. Not all of it was riveting, but in retrospect I think of it as writing boot camp. I wrote my thoughts and feelings about everything, for no particular audience (apart from some hypothetical reader out there who might one day be interested). I assumed that everything I thought was interesting and that my occasional poetry was decent (it was actually pretty horrible; I cringe when I think about the ode I wrote to Majestic Mountains). I also wrote a particularly bad book in high school, which I still have, but will never inflict on an unsuspecting public.
My point (and I do have one) is that although I didn’t know it, I actually spent my early years training to be a book expert. What kind of eight year old reads seventy books in a summer? What kind of fifteen year old gloms Jane Austen and Mark Twain for fun? And then writes about it afterward? A future book reviewer.
Early on in my reviewing career, I wrote a review that made someone unhappy. There was a discussion on another site’s board (long since defunct), in which the injured party referred to me as a “bully with a laptop” and went on to say that online reviewers could be just anyone. Who made them experts? Who decided they were qualified? At the time, my first thought was that I only wished I had a laptop. I was a stay-at-home mom on a tight budget, reading with a book in one hand and a baby in the other, and plunking out reviews late at night when everyone else was asleep. My initial “qualification” was my entry in a purple prose contest. Laurie Gold asked me to review (over eleven years ago), and the rest is history.
We don’t actually have specific qualifications to be a reviewer for AAR, beyond a love for reading romance and an ability to articulate your honest thoughts about a book. We’ve had reviewers of varying educational levels. Some started reviewing in high school, some never went to college, and some have advanced degrees. Some of them can read me into the ground (anyone who thinks I read fast has never met Linda Hurst). If you prove you can write and are willing to read your heart out in return for free books, you make the team.
When that author asked what my expert qualifications were all those years ago, I don’t know that I had the perfect answer. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, I do now. I’ve put in my ten thousand hours. Knowing my colleagues, I bet they have too.
– Blythe AAR