Those who follow my blog won’t be surprised to hear that my favourite kind of conversation goes something like this:
Friend: Read anything good lately, Isabel?
Me: Oh, I’ve just read this amazing book set in……about…. What have you been reading?
Repeat ad infinitum.
I’ve read so many excellent novels in the last few months that I almost feel as if boring, trite, badly-written ones have ceased to exist. There are two reasons why this is nonsense: firstly, it’s totally subjective and what I consider a terrible book may be someone else’s idea of a masterpiece; and logically there must be just as many books as ever out there that aren’t my cup of tea but I’ve got better at avoiding them. It got me thinking, how does anyone choose what to read when the choice is so vast?
Most keen readers have a few penchants – fiction set in a favourite place, period of history or by an author they admire so much that their next novel is eagerly awaited. My corresponding weaknesses are New York, London and France, and authors Anne Tyler, Sarah Waters, Maggie O’Farrell, Jonathan Franzen, Paul Auster (this list could go on and on…) Historical fiction per se isn’t my thing, but for a good enough story I wouldn’t rule anything out, for example I really enjoyed Pompeii by Robert Harris because I like his writing and he creates great characters.
The No-Brainers also include the books I know not to touch, authors whose style or subjects I don’t like and genres that really don’t interest me such as chick lit, sci-fi, romance, misery memoirs. I like accessible literary fiction and good commercial/women’s fiction with the odd well-written crime novel thrown in and that keeps me pretty busy.
Do you judge a book by its cover?
I’m a sucker for an attractive cover and I think it’s very important to get it right. I’m often drawn to moody, arty covers with muted colours and interesting lettering. Equally, a cover can be very offputting and give completely the wrong impression, and the same is true of book titles. A few years ago I read a book which got it wrong on both counts, This Book Will SaveYour Life by A M Homes which has pictures of doughnuts all over the front. It was a good novel unintentionally (I assume) masquerading as a crappy self-help diet book. At the opposite end of the scale is the book I’m reading at the moment, The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood. I loved the title from the moment I heard his editor mention it at a talk and the hardback dustjacket (left) is one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen. It’s the deepest black, very matt and tactile, with embossed lettering and motifs. Not even my grubby fingerprints have ruined it. (Come back next week for my review of what lies within.)
The luxury of browsing does of course require the continued existence of bookshops – two of my all-time favourites are Daunt Books in London’s Marylebone High Street and Tattered Cover in Denver. The gradual disappearance of bookshops, both independent and chains, in the UK and the USA in recent years is a worrying trend and so is the prospect of libraries closing down. I really believe that our communities need these places and would be worse off without them.
In the 8 years since I joined a book group, they’ve sprung up all over the place and one of the best things about them is discovering books you wouldn’t otherwise read. We recently read The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht which I enjoyed but would never have picked up because of my prejudice against anything ‘folksy’. A couple of years ago I absolutely loved The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson even though I actively didn’t want to read it because it combined medieval history, religion and folklore. Some books just cry out to be discussed, to the point where we can’t wait until the meeting. (Post on book groups coming soon).
Word of Mouth
This is what it’s really all about. It’s certainly what authors want and need to shift copies. In the past, if a friend with similar taste in fiction raved about a book I would be sure to read it, but now, with social media, the power of word of mouth extends way beyond readers’ sphere of people they know personally. In the six or so months since joining Twitter, going to talks about publishing and starting to review books myself, I’ve read far fewer disappointing books simply by being more plugged in and taking note when someone whose opinion I respect makes a recommendation. That’s why I’m looking forward to the titles in this picture, and the reason for some of my other fortunate discoveries, such as Florence & Giles by John Harding.
I recently read that newspaper reviews by professional critics are less important to the success of a book than before because of the power of reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Now anyone can be a critic, who needs experts? I’m not sure what to think about this because I have a particular take on it. If I’m interested in a title I’ve heard about, I avoid reviews until I’ve finished the book because I like to make up my own mind and if I end up reviewing it myself, I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s responses (also, so many people include spoilers – grrr!). It’s fun going on Amazon afterwards to see what’s been said, and as someone who spends a lot of my time producing reviews here, of course I’m thrilled that so many people do want to read them.
You can’t please all the people….
No matter how selective you try to be, it figures that sometimes a book isn’t what you expected, there’s a character you can’t stand, the story just didn’t pull you in… I like to start a new book in the bath, and if nothing about it grabs me after half an hour, that’s about the only time I give up. It hardly ever happens though, because (since I started writing, damn those talks!) at the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘a lot of people had to think this was worth publishing’.
How do you choose what to read? Whose recommendations do you listen to? Do you ever give up on a book?