Friday, November 28, 2014

Qualia and the Explanatory Gap: The Problem with Book Reviewing

Someone once told me that people's perceptions of color may differ, that my red may not be the same as your red. When I see a strawberry, I may perceive a hue that I have learned to call "red," while you may perceive a color that I call "green" but you have learned to call "red." Because the processing of color takes place inside our brains, we cannot experience other people's perceptions of a particular shade and therefore cannot know if they are the same as ours. We cannot even explain our experiences to each other. Despite humanity's many advanced and complex languages, we have never been able to come up with a combination of words that can make a color flash across a person's mind. Our languages are simply not capable of accomplishing such a feat.

My red versus (potentially) your red. Source
As a result, it is impossible to explain color to someone who has been blind from birth. Similarly, you could not explain pain or hunger to someone who biologically could not feel such sensations.

We call these raw, unexplainable feelings qualia and refer to our inability to describe them as the explanatory gap. And I am fascinated with the idea of it all—from the loneliness of our own individual feelings to the inadequacies of language.

Ever since I uncovered the concept of qualia, my mind has wandered to it each time I turn to type up a book review (because, as I recently proved, I can connect anything to book blogging). I feel a multitude of insufficiencies as a blogger—I can't use GIFs and I don't post often enough and I don't comment on other blogs as much as I should—but my most pressing insecurity is my inability to describe exactly how a book makes me feel.

I can talk about character growth and world building all day. I can analyze a story's metaphorical meanings and rhetorical strategies. I can quote a text dry and comment on each line until you never want to hear me talk again. I can even tell you that a book made me nauseated with anxiety, bubbly with happiness, or teeming with rage, and I can tell you why.

But I cannot describe precisely how it felt to fall into the world of Rose Under Fire, to be so absorbed and integrated into the story that I suspected the author of utilizing magical powers. I cannot relate exactly how it felt to read Strands of Bronze and Gold, watching the tension grow and grow and feeling like pressure was physically building inside me.

It is easier to explain those feeling than it is to describe pain or hunger or color; I just did, and I hopefully gave you an idea of my reading experience. But still, you can never slip into my mind and fully find out how a certain book felt to me. Even if you read it, even if our opinions align perfectly, our internal sensations while reading could differ vastly.

At first, this thought sounds lonely—as lonely as knowing we cannot share our individual perceptions of the color red. I joined the blogging community as a way to share my passion for literature and bond with people who love the same books as I do, and yet I cannot completely know how my blogging friend feels about a novel we both love. The problem even exists for non-reviewers discussing literature—they cannot overcome the bookish explanatory gap either.

However, while the inability to describe your emotional encounter with a novel may seem frustrating, I view it as a challenge. I may never be able to share my exact feelings about a book, but by citing specific details and calling upon my best descriptive writing, I can come close. With each review, I aim to draw near to that perfect description that will flood my readers with every emotion I felt while reading.

Someday, we may think of an arrangement of words that causes a vision of yellow to burn into your brain as bright as the sun. Someday, we might be able to describe the emotional, chemical turmoil churning in our brains when we read a specific book. All we need to do is continue trying.

So keep searching for that right set of words that can describe exactly how you feel about a story. Someday in the future, we may be able to have a book discussion like never before.

Do you ever get frustrated with your inability to describe how books make you feel? Let me know in the comments.

(Special thanks to this brilliant, mind-blowing video by Vsauce for inspiring this post. I highly recommend watching it—he explains qualia and the explanatory gap much more deeply and widely than I do here.)


  1. First of all, this is wonderfully written (as always...) :D I've thought about this topic a lot, but didn't quite know how to put it into words (oh, the irony!) - but you did wonderfully! :D

    Second, I completely agree with you. Sometimes you know exactly how you feel about a book, but you just can't transfer those feelings to words. Using GIFs definitely helps a little, but, like you noted, even they can't get the job done completely.

    I love the idea of having a challenge to discuss books accurately. I'm all for it! Fabulous post Emily!

  2. I definitely agree with just about everything that you wrote. I find it extremely hard to find the right words to describe elements in my book reviews, and often I finish it and just know it's not the right way to put the feelings, but it's the best I can do. It's also really hard to express things without giving so much away for those who haven't read it yet.
    Beautiful post!

  3. Daaaayung. Emily. This was such a gorgeous post. I've actually thought a LOT about this concept, only I thought I was crazy and had no clue what I was talking about. I had no idea that it was an actual concept, and that makes me super excited.

    (Unrelated note: It is a Saturday night, and I'm "taking a break " from my homework. Now that you have given me an actual name for this weird yet super amazing concept, I have the time to go into a dark hole and research the heck out of qualia... *evil laugh*)

    Ahem. But anyways, I think what you said is so, so true. I think that's the struggle I'm having with The Darkest Minds. I'm so, hopelessly in love with that series and it's impossible for me to articulate exactly what those books and those characters have not only done to me, but what they have done FOR me. They've given me so much strength and perspective and the desire to fight for what I care about, but that desire is so,so hard to put into words. I imagine that's something similar to what you're feeling for books like Rose Under Fire.

    In the end, though, I think that's the goal of any writer. To try and do the impossible; to put words to emotions that are the very core of our human existence. As reviewers we try to recommend books based on the emotions we feel, but because books are so subjective, you know inevitably as a reviewer that the experience will be different for another person. But when we recommend books, we only hope that their experience will be as powerful and moving as ours, even if it's different (which based off of this concept of qualia, seems like it will be different).

    Gorgeous, gorgeous, post, Emily. I think we're both going to always be trying to write and use words to try and express our emotions, and the idea of trying to do that is just so exciting. Maybe one day we'll get it just right. <3

    1. awkward, totally didn't realize what a whopper of a comment this was. sorry... this is what happens when I comment late at night. =P

  4. Brilliant, brilliant post. Definitely the read of the day for me, my dear. I'm definitely giving qualia a lookup right now because you've got me absolutely intrigued in this concept. And you're absolutely right. It's so hard to encapsulate that exact moment and I get frustrated all the time because that's what I want to get across to those who read my review. I want them to know of the sensations that I experienced. But alas, I've never achieved it.

  5. "I feel a multitude of insufficiencies as a blogger—I can't use GIFs and I don't post often enough and I don't comment on other blogs as much as I should—but my most pressing insecurity is my inability to describe exactly how a book makes me feel." THIS. You have the exact words I have been miserably building since day one of my blogging life. I owe you. Your post made me nod every end of a sentence. I will definitely read more of qualia. Thanks and I hope we readers could achieve someday what we are looking for and describe a book with all the feels.

    Yani @


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