Tuesday 19 January 2010

Choosing books...

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..."

  • "Dystopic vision"
  • "disturbing"
  • "...politically astute..."
  • "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.


  1. I know you'll throw your hands up in disbelief, Simon, but I must disabuse you of the idea that a book's cover is there to tell you what the book is like. That may have been the case once, but not any more. As a published author I've have had to accept that the cover exists to *sell the book*, not to inform the reader. Publishers are quite brazen about this. (I've heard it said that readers now don't even expect the cover to represent the contents. They accept it's just a marketing tool.)

    The other point of a cover's existence is to appeal to Tesco, but don't get me started on that one. If Tesco don't like a cover (ie don't think it will sell) then it gets re-designed. Fact. A cover of mine was re-designed because WHS didn't like it.

    So my advice would be don't ever judge a new book by its cover. It might have absolutely nothing to do with the book and everything to do with marketing. (The naked female on the front of THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO, anyone?...)

  2. I place great faith in book titles, especially in wonderfully over-crowded used bookstores, where they shelve things three deep and the spine is all you can see, even after extensive digging. If I find the title intriguing and the first line of the blurb doesn't make me run away in horror, then I open to a random page and start reading. If a couple of paragraphs are good, then I go to the very beginning, make sure it's similarly acceptable, and then it comes home with me.

    I've come across some of my favourites this way: The Siren Years, Grass Beyond the Mountains...mostly, now that I think of it, random Canadiana that you'd never hear of any other way.

    When I'm buying newer books, the cover design definitely plays a greater role than with used a.) because I'm spending more money and b.) because it's unfair to set those standards for books published in 1973 (it's not their fault that avocado green and bright orange were so popular then - or that I harbour such distaste for that particular combination).

  3. I am mostly a random book chooser these days - mainly because I no longer have the income to just swan into a bookshop and buy what I have heard or read, reviewed on radio or in newspapers/magazines. Actually I was always a bit random in my choice because I am like your housemate in that I don't have a 'type' of book I like. I do agree about blurbs though - they can be very off-putting as you have described. I tend to look at the source rather than the actual wording; if The Times/Guardian/Literary Review etc it would appeal more than say, The Daily Mail, or any woman's mag ( sorry sisters) etc. Increasingly bloggers are quoted which is a tremendous help, especially if I follow them and respect their judgement. In fact most of my recent brand new book purchases have been made after blogger recommendations, some to my regret, sadly. So even though I enjoy reading book blogs I have been led astray! Now back to my usual pattern of looking in second hand and charity bookshops for books, both fiction and non-fiction which just 'strike a chord' somehow and may be recent or past best-sellers, or not.

  4. Oh I love your list. Can I add 'tour de force' please!

  5. Right now, I try to only choose books that I know enough about to think that there is a good chance that I will find my time well-spent while reading them. I did more of an experimental year last year and came out of it a bit off of reading. But now I have already had a couple of stellar reads this year and am feeling much better!

    Character names can definitely put me off a book. Also, endorsements by unheard of publications or by authors that I dislike aren't going to encourage me to choose a book.

  6. I completely ignore blurbs when perusing books at the store. I usually go in with a list of authors in my head. I usually look for classics and authors I've already read and loved before, or authors I desperately want to try. When perusing titles or authors I do not trust yet, though, I always, and this has been my habit ever since, always read the first sentences or the whole first page. If I find that the writing is to my disliking, I disregard the author completely. If I like the writing, then I'll take a look at the summary at the back, and if it interests me, then to the basket (or wish list) it goes. :)

  7. I agree with Linda, the cover of a book is no help and indeed they are so trend driven now and all so similar - you only have to look in the teen fantasy section of a bookshop to see all the Harry P look alike covers. I actually think covers can con you into buying something you shouldn't because it subconsciously reminds you of some other successful or popular book. I agree blurbs are also useless and so are, much more hilariously, quotes from other or 'similar' authors (the Simpsons did a great parody episode of this with Tom Clancy endorsing a book Marge Simpson wrote).

    I tend to go for writers I know, or friends I trust who have good judgement for new books. Also reviews from people I trust but I tend not to like reviews which are too detailed. And in any event there are so so many old books I still need to get through. ...

    It is all very high risk. If the book is a mistake I still force myself to read it all. Makes for much more careful choosing!

  8. Oh, "Ireland in 1890" will send me running too - takes a lot to overcome "multigenerational family saga" - and I can't be doing with anything set in America during the Great Depression. I am a big fan of judging books by their covers though! I like stylized covers that are a little Gothic and spooky-looking, and I hate covers that have pictures of the characters.

  9. This may seem ironic seeing as my latest review features one, but I detest covers with decapitated women. There are still a couple in my TBR but I resolve not to purchase another one.

  10. P.S. I forgot to mention: covers absolutely draw me in, too. Of course, they still have to pass my first page test. :D

  11. I'm with Lizzy on the headless women. Nooooooo!

  12. I don't choose a book by its cover. Like you I do choose a random page to check the book:although I have to confess my favourite pages are p 29 and p78- so not really random. My local library has a reader of large print books who circles p 18. I am guessing this signifies that they have read the book, but who knows. On a side issue, maybe I live in a place where pedants predominate because I am forever reading corrections (both grammatical and editorial) I love this aspect of reading library books.

  13. You know well that Dark Puss no longer actually buys books (I bought two novels and one textbook in 2009) so all I can say is how I approach the similar, though financially much less risky, task of which books to borrow from my local (and University) libraries.

    1) An author whose work I have liked (e.g. Haruki Murakami and Kinky Freidman)

    2) An author I have heard of but not yet read.

    3) Some completely random choice; a bit like your chosing books blindfold from your shelves.

    4) Any Cornflower Book Group book.

    I am not influenced (sorry, that has to be a reckless statement - I do not THINK I am influenced) by titles, covers, blurb, silly (or enticing) words on covers etc. Mostly, I will do what "Claire (The Captive Reader)" suggests and quickly read a few paragraphs.

  14. (This should all be in past tense as I am not buying books this year as you know.)

    I tend to buy books that have either been raved about and recommended by those that I trust. I also obvioulsy by books buy authors I love of people have said that I will love. I don't take too many risks because I already have too many books.

    Oh one exception to the rule... if its won a Prize then I would occasionally just think 'oh why not?'

  15. Your list of blurbs had me laughing as they're definite choice killers for me as well. The title escapes me but I remember once buying a book because the first line was a bell ringing as the shop door opened and tea was being poured.

    Clever, charming, set in England with preferably lots of dialogue will grab me every time...and apparently, a pot of tea.

  16. It looks as though we have a very different taste in books, as half of your quotes would get me interested in a book.
    I love disturbing books with dystopic vision and have no problems if the characters aren't in your big book of baby names!!

    I'm not a big fan of coming of age stories - especially those set in Ireland during the 1890s!!

    It is great that there is such diversity in reading tastes. I'll be interested to see your thoughts on Robert Jordan. My husband loves him, but I've never been tempted to try one.

  17. Until reading your post and really thinking about it, I didn't realise just how much influences the books that I read. I tend to buy books from authors I have read and loved (I am one of those people who when I find an author I enjoy, I go on a reading spree and read every book of theirs I can get my hands on one after another). I also buy based on recommendations and reviews I have read. Due to finances, a lot of my books come from charity shops and secondhand book shops. In these cases, where the choices available are quite random, I rely on the blurb, if it is the type of books I tend to enjoy, the cover (it tells you a lot about the type of book it is) and the publisher.

  18. Not ever by a cover! It seems to me that the new covers are way more beautiful than the words inside. They are that too-often used 'evocative.' They are often nostalgic in a heart-tugging kind of way. And the books rarely live up to them, in my experience. A striking exception are the Wallander books by Henning Mankell. They give a good sense of what is inside. I choose to buy a book based on what I've read - often the words of bloggers whose taste mirrors mine.

  19. Thanks man.
    You've made me think about this now. It's not a random sample. I usually do buy books I've heard of. But when I am buying a book I've heard of and wanted, it may well be in the 3-for-2. Choosing the other two unheard of books therefore involves considering some factors:
    Who has written the reviews on the back definitely holds weight. And - yes I do judge a book by its title actually... A bizarre or intruiging title and I'll usually go for it.
    I have come across some great books this way... but I'll have to go and look at my bookcase to tell you which.

  20. ...in the tradition of...

    antics (worse: zany antics)


    "[author's name] is destined to be the next [bestselling author's name]" --[even bigger author's name]

  21. I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover but I do. If I don't like the cover I would prefer not to have it on my shelves. That's why my heart lifts when I see an old green Virago.

    One thing you didn't mention, Simon, was the TITLE of the book. I've seen the other side of choosing a title while my sister has been writing her first novel. There was a name that she gave the book and we used whenever we referred to it. It is a foreign word but also the name of the main character and the sound of that name also contains some of the hard edge of that man. However, my sister is well aware that a single foreign word is probably not enough to convey anything of th ebook, or intrigue a prospective purchaser.

    I don't buy new books, my skinflint tendenceies won't let me most of the time and also I don't feel comfortable in large bookshops. I've been in the Waterstone's branch in Piccadilly that claims to be "Europe's largest bookshop" with DoveGreyReader who was in her element. However, in somewhere like that I suffer a strange mixture of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The lighting does something to my brain and eyes and I can't see the wood for the trees or the books for the books.
    I love secondhand bookshops and charity shops. I am excited by the 10p basket by the door. Who knows what will be discovered? Scouts jumble sale. At the end of the afternoon I can come away with 2 carrier bags full of books for well under £5. Bliss!

  22. Ha, ha! You had me laughing with all those book blurbs. For years, I'd choose books based on the Amazon lists such as "If you like this book, you might like these..." I tend to trust people who like the same books I do. Of course, now with book blogs who needs Amazon? I would never choose a book by it's cover and I would never just read anything but there are quite a lot of people like your friend who would read anything.

  23. I'm fairly good at discerning why I'm drawn to a particular book, and if that reason is enough to purchase it or if it should go on my library list. Unfortunately, I'm not so great at why I am turned off by books. Although I'm with you on bad dialogue. One page can put me off a book forever.

  24. I might be drawn to an unknown book by its' cover. I don't hold much to the blurb, but I am intereted in any comments made on the book by another author I have enjoyed.
    I also have a good read of the first paragraph, and if I want to go on, then usually buy.

    I also gain access to new books through my book group. Each meeting some of us bring along books that we have read, enjoyed, and exchange. I have come across some excellent books this way.

    Personal recommendations and incresingly blogs, also influence my reading. Other peoples book shelves, charity shops, shelves in holiday cottages, the 10p a book pile in our doctors surgery all put books in my way to snuffle through.

  25. How about "A warm and uplifting story of three generations of women from a dysfunctional family" ...?

  26. In fairness, you've only agreed to read The Eye of the World because I've agreed to read two Virginia Woolf novels in return. Which, by the way, you have yet to lend me.

    I get put off by books that are advertised at railway stations - just like films that are advertised on phone boxes, they're pretty much guaranteed to be bad.

  27. It's usually a good sign when it is NOT on the New York Times bestseller list or Oprah's list.

    Mostly, I jot down titles after visiting interesting blogs, such as yours, or suggestions from friends, or the occasional review from the Wall Street Journal.

  28. My stratagy is to look for publishers rather than authors, especially ones with a very distinctive house style, so a virago apple always gets my attention. I discovered Persephone like that too and have never been dissapointed by them. If something is highly recommended on a blog I like or in a review I'll certainly search it out, but I can't begin to number the excellent books I've found through following publishers.

  29. 'This book will change your life' ... oh, no, it won't.

  30. Fantastic post - those off-putting phrases were brilliantly funny.

    I get influenced or not as the case may be but anything and everything, but especially books I've read about in reviews. Bad covers in particular are repellent. One of the things I do do though, is to ask the owners and staff of our bookshop "What's new that I'll like then?" They know me too well!

  31. Oh goodness, anything with more than one generation of a family... no thanks. (sorry Wuthering Heights)

    Great books I hadn't heard of til I bought them randomly:

    The Gargoyle - Andrew Davidson (brilliant)

    The Underground Man - Mick Jackson

    Bad books I bought because they had a hilarious title:

    A Short History of Tractor Farming in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

    The Cheese Monkeys - Chip Kidd.

    So, by not doing any research, you win some, you lose some.

  32. My way of choosing/buying books has changed greatly since I became active on the internet, about 13 years ago. Before that, I bought books I wanted because I knew something about them already, or books that intrigued me looking at them in a second hand bookstore, Or even, older books that looked beautiful to me. But all of them were books that I had seen, and held in my hands, before I bought them.

    Now I buy books because people whose opinions I value have recommended them to me. I must admit, age and arthritis have cut down on my explorations of second hand book stores, though we still have them in my area of Northeast Ohio and upstate New York.

    And I buy too many books. Online, it seems to go too quickly. I'm running out of places to put more bookshelves and I'm carrying bags of donation books to our local Goodwill shops.

    I try to read a recommended book in a library copy before I decide to buy. I also keep a notebook next to my computer and write down the books that are mentioned by online friends. I do this because it keeps me from buying so many impulsively. I find that just writing down the title will often calm that book lust! Ah, the problems we make for ourselves!

  33. Oh, gosh... So many of those terms. I don't care for "gritty," for one, as it seems to indicate urban and violent. Also, if a book claims to be like Dickens, for example, I wonder how anyone could be quite THAT good. So, Dickensian, Faulknerian, etc. make me suspicious. "Pitch perfect" is a term that just irritates me in general, it's so over-used. So many more, I can't even think of them.

  34. I am always exceedingly irritated when a blurb tells me how I'll feel/think/react after having read the book. I'll decide that for myself, thank you very much! Along with a list of catch-phrases not dissimilar to yours, a tabloid paper or women's magazine endorsement puts me right off a book.

    Like you, I do tend to judge a book by it's cover. I feel entitled to since I'm going to have to look at the cover sitting on my bookshelf/desk/random pile on the floor. And on the occasion that I do find a book I wish to read for which the publisher has chosen a hideous or offesively incongruous cover, I've been known to literally cover books myself with paper.

    [Aside: Who else is enraged by the chick-lit covers Headline Review opted for when releasing their new editions of Austen's novels a couple of years ago?]

    Covers aside, title, author, reading the first page, publisher, and recommendations are what I tend to consider when buying a completely random book. My reading habits are obsessive though - I tend to read all of the books by a particular author, or of a particular style, circle or sub-genre and nothing else until I've exhausted the list of available published material - so I rarely make a totally random selection.


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