I wonder how you go about choosing a book, a real, paper-in-your-hand-book in a shop or a library?
I know you’re not supposed to choose by the cover, but I do look at it, not so much to see if I like it, but more to see if it puts me off. If it looks far too weird or far too clichéd I will approach the contents with caution. Sometimes the cover gives too much of the novel’s themes away, sometimes it’s wildly misleading.
I have a copy of Ursula le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters vol 1 (Panther Science Fiction 1978) which has a horrendous picture on the front. It bears not the slightest resemblance to the person in the story either physically or in character. I can only offer her my commiserations for having somehow been saddled with it.
Yes, I do read the blurb on the back of the book. If it says it’s as good as Tolkien it goes straight back on the shelf. No one is as good as Tolkien, though many are brilliant in their own quite different way. I read carefully in case the blurb contains spoilers, and if I see one approaching I’ll stop reading immediately and open the book.
Where do I open it? Not at the first page! Never at the first page!
I open it randomly in the middle, avoiding the beginning or end of a chapter. You see a book can be a bit like going out for dinner; the starter may be wonderful to look at and utterly delicious, but the main course might then be a bitter disappointment. Every writer has had it hammered into them for years that the opening sentences of their book are the most important. Their book will stand or fall, sell or not sell on the quality of those first vital words.
It’s probably true, but one of the consequences of this can be that the author, having spent weeks honing the opening of their novel, may be incapable of carrying the brilliance of the first page on into the rest of the book.
By reading three pages from the middle of the book I can tell if the writing style is still good – and comfortable for me – and if at this midpoint of the story the characters have developed depth. I can see how they communicate, I can judge the descriptive power of the writing, and I will discover whether, from that glimpse of the middle of the adventure, or whatever it is, I care about the characters enough to want to know whether or how they survive, or what happens next.
You might think I’m mad to read from the middle and that it’s too risky. Well, hand on heart, I’m not the only person who does it; just today I was talking to someone who chooses their books in the same way, and we have never come upon a major spoiler. The thing is with spoilers, even if we read one we wouldn’t recognise it as such. Not knowing what has come before we are reading our three pages in a state of blissful ignorance.
I chose Rachel Neumeier’s The Griffin Mage omnibus this way and after reading my random pages was very happy to hand over my pennies for it. I’ll tell you more about the book another time, but for now I want to say I never even recognised my three taster pages when I came to them – as I must have done. When read in context they must have meant something quite different to my initial impression, but that didn’t matter. As tasters they were intriguing enough and well enough written for me to want the book on my shelf at home.
So there you are – a strange but well-tested way of choosing a new book. How do you do it?