Editors at The Believer asked a recent book reviewer to take place in an experiment in criticism:
They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review” formula — if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice — whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. … [S]oon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.
After reading the book, the reviewer felt:
As to the sensory-deprivation school of reading, I have to say that it was an enormously disorienting experience. Jacket copy does more than simply entice you to buy. It supplies a framework for one’s experience. It is less a movie trailer than it is a placard on a museum wall, telling you not just how to look at the painting, but what to see there when you do. I found myself freed from the tyranny of the preprogrammed response, set adrift, context-free, at sea with an alien text. Every reviewer — every reader — should hope to be so lucky.
I read quickly and often forget, mid-book, even the title of the very book I’m reading. What are you reading? people ask. I start talking, stalling as I pull the book out of my bag to find the title. Even with my reliance on physical reminders, I always read the front matter (knowing I’ll forget it afterward). I’m curious if it “provides a framework” for our experience because it’s always been there, or because the information is critical to the text. Or perhaps front matter is Paco Underhill’s landing strip for the book. I suspect the former with a bit of the latter.