A recent blog post by the ever interesting Alex Donald provoked me to consider how I choose the books I read, or more specifically the books I buy. Some people are hunters, they know what they want and they zoom right in on it. Not me, I graze. I once explained this process to a prof at university. In my (possibly romanticized) memory of this exchange, the office was dimly lit, the chairs were old leather and there was a huge glass ashtray on the low coffee table between us. This was before several bouts of malaria took their toll and the professor was still a handsome Daniel Craig lookalike. Having stubbed out a cigarette, he flipped to the essay’s bibliography and asked how I picked the books that weren’t on the reading list. I couldn’t think of anything clever so I blurted out the truth- they were shelved around the prescribed texts. And they looked interesting.
Somehow that bought me two extra credits, and I’ve been relying on mild variations of this selection method ever since. I’d start with something I liked and work out from there along the shelf until another book called out READ ME. This worked well until I moved away from academia and specialised libraries. In my experience fiction lends itself less to such tactics, especially when it comes to cover art, and after a run of duds I decided it was time to adapt.
How to choose? Well it turns out most people rely on set criteria. There are prize-winners, friends’ suggestions, journal, blog or newspaper reviews. There are shop recommendations in their many variations- staff picks, seller’s choices and, a recent discovery, the customer recommendation (GREAT idea!) Publishers’ websites and bookshop newsletters provide lists of their own. And that’s after you’ve gone through the critically acclaimed or publicly agreed must-reads for a given genre.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all”. I’ve taken ‘best’ to be a subjective term here… Nevertheless, with great chagrin I have accepted my life is too short to get through all the books I’d like to read, especially as they just keep coming.
Some people rely on an Amazon algorithm. Others make use of the reader’s democracy that is GoodReads, where voting and reviews are more populist. A new website called Riffle will allow you to do what Goodreads does but on platforms with friends. If you have the time there are literary reviews both online and in print, although in my experience these vary greatly in quality. Zoe Heller’s review of Vagina: A New Biography, by Naomi Wolf, in the New York Times Book Review recently saved me AU$30. I had been tempted, repeatedly, and resolved to find out what some one I respected thought. Well Heller shredded it. Beautifully, eloquently, she challenged the generalisations and navel-gazing that make up the bulk of the book. On the flip side A.N. Wilson describes, in Reviewers I have known (in the utterly brilliant Penguin Book of Journalism), many an instance where a reviewer provided an eye opening appraisal of a book and its subject, without ever having read the book in question. Worth noting.
In my experience there’s still nothing quite like walking into a library or bookshop to choose a book (Surprise, surprise). Even the most popular authors aren’t always to taste and here you have a chance to read the first few paragraphs. I sometimes go as far as flick to the middle- Murakami’s books lend themselves well to such inspection, Dan Brown’s wouldn’t. But again, which of the thousands on offer do you actually pick up to peruse?
On a recent visit to Kinokunya this staff review, under a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, caught my eye:
“There are 350,000 books in this store and this is the best one- Connor”
It was brazen and confident and just witty enough to make me buy it- iin another, secondhand, bookstore- older, short books shouldn’t cost $19.95. But thank you Connor, the book was bril.
Staff reviews often provide a window into the shop itself. Berkelouw Newtown’s staff reviews are comprehensive and well-written, allowing for far more informed decisions on new releases. More intimate, the staff at Oscar & Friends let their own style and manner seep into reviews. From that touch of personality it’s possible to pick out those who like your kind of book so that their endorsements carry more weight. Elizabeth’s Bookstore has a less sophisticated, though highly effective version of this- if you liked X, you’ll love Y, again chosen by staff and qualified by simple descriptions: “cute, frothy, fun” for example.
Across all establishments many of these suggestions ‘somehow’ coincide with the big releases being touted just about everywhere else. For me at least the more personal touches help fight some of my cynicism about the publishing industry. Indeed Elizabeth’s capitalized on mainstream successes in its own way- their take on the 50Shades of Grey phenomenon was the following announcement:
“Long before 50 Shades of Grey, good authors wrote excellent erotica with proper sentence structure, complex characterization and actual plots (not to mention wonderful eroticism)”
Below it was an impressive collection including the likes of Eve Howard and Reginald Martin. I’ve never read any erotic fiction but there were some seductive offers…
Where the written staff reviews are strong, you’ll often get helpful responses to requests for suggestions based on your particular interests. Elizabeth’s tongue in cheek approach is mirrored in it’s staff. Whilst at at Berkelouw Paddo a few have encyclopaedic knowledge of the inventory. They do for books what a great sommelier does for a wine list, tailoring the choice to the consumer. Tiana of Beautiful Pages is similarly on the ball.
Finally, nothing beats an observant friend.
Growing up everyone was reading the Lord of The Rings, and The Hobbit was on every teenager’s bookshelf. These were The Classics. I laboured through chapters but they still didn’t take. A distant aunt sent Terry Pratchett for my Christmas aged sixteen and I didn’t get past the first chapter. If I wasn’t reading the biographies of dictators or politics textbooks I was enjoying Patricia Cornwell’s brand of crime and historical fiction of the Shardlake variety– Fantasy was so not my thing.
Last fall my ex passed me his copy of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. “Just read a chapter” he told me, knowing of my aversion to the genre, “this is court politics on crack”. He couldn’t have put it better, I devoured the entire series. Then, noting my library’s new additions, a close friend urged me to revisit both Tolkien and Pratchett. Though the words remained the same, the experience was completely novel, and exhilarating. I owe this observant friend a debt of gratitude, because mine would be a lesser life without Tolkien and Pratchett.
More than merely (re)discovering these two authors, I had two realisations. Similar to our experiences of food, literary tastes change and evolve- it’s important to test yourself from time to time! And yet just as important, if it doesn’t go down well, and I’m not saying it has to go down easy, there’s no point in pushing it. There are too many great books out there that you’ll love, to waste time on the ‘Greats’ you just don’t.
But I’m still new to the game so I’d love your thoughts on this one! How do you choose a book? Who’s made you the most reliable recommendations!?