I was having a conversation with my housemate the other day, and she said she doesn’t really have a type of book that she likes to read, she’ll sample more or less anything. Which is doubtless very admirable, keeping ones horizons broad and so forth – but, wherever you stand on the virtues of broadminded reading, my question was: how do you choose what to buy?
I suppose it’s worth noting that she’s one of these insane individuals who only has the number of books they can feasibly read at any one time, and doesn’t remember every town in England based on the presence or absence of secondhand bookshops. Imagine. But still… I tend only to buy books if I’ve already heard of them, or the author – usually from recommendations of like-minded friends. Very, very occasionally, I’ll buy a book I nothing about. So what do you base this on? If you’re ever browsing old or new books, and pick something completely unheard of? I was chatting about blurbs yesterday with Harriet Devine, and we agreed that they were mostly useful for putting you off buying something. Here are some words that will make sure I put the book straight back on the shelf:
“This touching coming-of-age story…”
“It is Ireland in 1890…”
“…twenty-four hours to save the world.”
“You’ll learn to live, love, and laugh once more.”
Any character name which wouldn’t be found in My Big Book of Baby Names
Any character name which includes asterisks or hyphens or exclamation marks
“If you liked Louis de Bernieres…”
So what do I look for? I do base a lot on the cover. Proverbially you shouldn’t, but a whole industry is involved in cover design and it would be silly to ignore them. There’s a reason they’ve chosen the cover, and it tells you whether or not you’ll like it, probably more than the blurb will. If I’m enticed, I’ll flick to an arbitrary page and read a couple of paragraphs. And that generally makes up my mind – bad writing, especially bad dialogue-writing, is pretty clear pretty quickly.
And then? Usually I shelve them and forget all about them… but I have had a few successes. That’s how I first read the very excellent The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Yellow by Janni Visman, and Alva & Irva by Edward Carey – all of which have since become favourites (browse through the Authors tab, or click here, for reviews those books)
And I know at least three of you will tell me off for being a snob, or something, but – there are so many books out there! I need to be a little discerning, and if I know the sort of books I like (and it’s still pretty wide, and covers a few categories – I love quirky novels, for instance, but ‘quirky’ so rarely seems to come without ‘grotesque’) then I save myself a lot of time and money. And to those who think I’m a book snob, let me tell you that I’ve recently started The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. It’s got more pages than I’ve had hot dinners, and it’s fantasy, doncha know.
Anyways – let me know your book-choosing techniques, which blurb-words make you run for the hills, and whether you’ve had any great successes on books bought out of the blue.