Monday, May 7, 2012

How to Choose a Book

Ask most people if they read, and they will admit that they should probably read more. When asked why they don't read more, people generally give one of the standard answers: 1) "I don't have time," or 2) "I can't find something interesting enough to hold my attention all the way through," or 3) "Since that time when I gouged my own eyes out with a pin after discovering that I sealed my own tragic doom by accidentally murdering my own father and marrying my mother, I've found it difficult to read much of anything." 

Stuff like that.

Of the three problems, the second one--the problem of choosing a book to read--is the one most easily solved. (The first one's an excuse and the third one can only be solved with therapy.) Therefore, the remaining portion of this essay will be dedicated to helping you learn how to choose a book to read. And if you're not, by the end, completely clear on the steps that you must take in order to choose your next book, I will gladly eat my hat.1

First, though, we should cover a few aspects of how not to choose a book.

How NOT to choose a book:

1. Leave it to the Fates. Whatever you do, do not clasp one hand over your eyes while zombie-walking through the aisles of  your local Barnes and Noble, hoping against hope that the Fates will allow your hand to fall upon the sturdy spine of the book written just for you.  I just tried this method with my own personal collection and wound up with clutching a yellowed edition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a book that I wasn't even aware that I possessed. Which just goes to show.  

Incidentally, it's also not a good idea to use a similar approach to Bible reading. To demonstrate what I mean, I just now pretended to be super discouraged and in need of comfort and guidance. I took out my Bible, closed my eyes, let the pages flop open, and plonked my index finger down, determining to take whatever verse I was touching to heart. It turned out to be Ecclesiastes 3:12: "I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life," which isn't exactly the dreadful sort of example that I'd been anticipating. But you get the picture. My finger could just as easily been pointing to Leviticus 26:29 or Deuteronomy 25:11-12, and then where would I be?2  My point is that just as nobody (all right.... very few people) would leave their spiritual welfare to such sporadic methods, why would they do so with their literary pursuits?

2. Pick up whatever is under the "HOT BEACH READ!" sign at the book store.  No.  Just.... no, no, no.  Ditto whatever is touted as a "best seller."  Books are "best sellers" for one of several reasons: they deal with a trending topic, they've been written by (or ghost written for) a celebrity, or they appeal to the lowest common denominator of skill and interest levels. Not exactly such stuff as dreams are made on. This is not to say that all of these books are bad, per se, but that just because a book is a best seller does not mean that this book is for you or that if you don't like it, there is something inherently wrong with you.

3. Assume that any book that's been made into a movie must be a safe bet. After all, it must be good, otherwise it wouldn't be made into a movie... right?  It would be lovely if that were the case, but it's not.  Some books are made into movies because of their visual potential; some are made into movies because there happens to be a market for that sort of movie at the time. Other books are made into movies simply because they have been written by Nicholas Sparks, but that's hardly an endorsement. 

But I know what you're thinking. You didn't start reading this essay to be told how not to choose a book; you want to know how you should go about choosing a book for yourself.  Don't worry--I haven't forgotten. I'll be getting to that shortly. But first, allow me to indulge in a brief description of what goes on around here when it comes time for me to choose the next book I'm going to read.3

First, I heave a huge sigh. Next, I wander aimlessly into my room to look at the to-read stack next to my bed. Occasionally this will suffice, but unfortunately, there are times that nothing in that stack catches my eye.  In that case, I click through my Kindle to see if there are any downloaded-but-still-unread books on there that catch my fancy.  I consult the stack of glossy library books in the corner.  At that point, if I'm still unsuccessful, I begin to wander around the apartment ogling the bulging bookshelves, bemoaning the fact that I don't know what to read next. According to my roommate/sister, I also "whine about it" and occasionally flail around on the floor. In extreme cases, I venture into her bedroom to peer at her modest collection and bemoan the fact that I don't have anything to read.  

It's exhausting, really.  But not as exhausting as it would be if I didn't already know what I was looking for.  

"Yes!" you interject. "That's precisely what I want to know--what to look for! You promised that you were going to tell me how to choose a book!"

And indeed I will without further ado.

How to Choose a Book

1. Ask advice from a reader.  Don't make the rookie mistake of asking the reader what his favorite book is and then try reading that, though, because he may just be pretentious and say something like The Complete Works of Josephus just to impress you, and then you'll be saddled with the task of working your way through prose so dense that it's just this shy of collapsing into a black hole, all the while wondering what in the would would have possessed your friend to recommend it to you in the first place. 

The problem with this method of book-choosing is that you're asking the wrong question.  One of the ways in which I make reading recommendations to non-readers is to ask them what their favorite TV shows are and then make reading recommendations based on that. Just a little advice to bear in mind when you're asking readers for recommendations. If your favorite show happens to be, say, a crime drama, ask your reader friend if he's read any good thrillers lately. You get the idea.

2. Skim the first few pages. If it doesn't grab you within the first few pages, it's probably not going to grab you at all. Don't invest your money or a large chunk of your time in a book that you are unlikely to finish. I don't care how shiny the cover is or how popular the book may be. If it doesn't grab you, don't grab it.

3. Ignore consumer reviews. Reviews written on Amazon and Goodreads are all well and good for what they're worth, but it is good to remember that the vast majority who post in these forums are by no means literary critics. Bear in mind that the top review may have been written by a fourteen-year-old, leaving you to believe that Revenge of the Vampire Prom Queen4 is indeed the "Best b00k 3varrrrrr!" and that To Kill a Mockingbird is "a real snoozefest."5

In the end, the best advice about choosing books is just to keep choosing them. Eventually, you will choose one that seems to choose you back. When that happens, chase the magic: read everything by that author, or in that genre, or in the "similar to this author" column. 

Read, read, read, read, read.

_______________
1. It's made of chocolate. 
2. Look them up. You know you want to.  Don't worry. I'll wait.
3. Bear in mind that I go through this process a few times a week, although not all between-book moments are as agonizing as others.
4. Not a real book.
5. Real quote form a real one-star review on Amazon.com of a real and remarkable book.

8 comments:

  1. I'll never make it through my book pile, but I'm okay with that!

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  2. If I sit down to read a book at home it quickly gets replaced by one preferred by the Squablings* that take up residence on my lap.

    It's probably best not to ask me for a recommendation, unless 'Jet Engines: The Fundamentals of Theory, Design and Operation' sounds like your thing.

    *Squab - unfledged Dove.

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    1. It sounds like something that Beef might pick up, actually.

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  3. I love suggesting books to 'n00bs', and even though I'm a pretty hardcore reader (although not, I think, quite up to your lofty heights!) I can usually calibrate my recommendations to the person's reading level/taste.

    When my buddy Joel recently asked for suggestions for a book that would get him back into reading, I thought "Page Turner + Fantasy" and recommended 'Elantris' by Brian Sanderson fans. Both he and his wife are now huge Sanderson fans, having read more of his books than I have, and have branched out into other, similar authors.

    Success!

    -Tom

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    1. Isn't it great when that happens? Yay, books!

      I've actually never heard of Brian Sanderson; I'll have to check him out.

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  4. I had to snort at the part about TKAM being a real snoozefest. Anyone who says that needs the revenge of the vampire prom queen.

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    1. A sad commentary on our times, for sure.

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