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Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?

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.

Some of my recent delights

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?

The No-Brainers

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.

Black velvet scarf and matching book

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.

Book Groups

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).

High Hopes…

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?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


29 thoughts on “Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?

  1. Great post, Isabel.
    I think cover art is important initially, to draw your attention – especially if it’s related to a scene in the book. (I tend to switch back to it whilst I’m reading.)
    Good writing is a must, for me a page turner with lots of twists and turns is perfect. But, true, we live in a subjective world and what suits one, doesn’t another.
    On the review front, I feel a reader’s opinion is more important than a critique. If I can please just a few other readers, like myself, then I’ll be happy:)

    Posted by Jane Isaac | February 4, 2012, 19:04
    • Thanks, Jane, I’m really interested to hear others’ take on this. As I’m now getting feedback from readers of my full manuscript, I do agree with you that hearing the response of individual people is really rewarding. Can’t wait to get my Kindle back this week so I can finally read your novel, a good crime fix is overdue !

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2012, 21:05
      • Hi Isabel, thought your followers might want to hear from one of your Book Groupers (Groupies?) that we loved your book when we discussed it last night and the discussion gave us even more food for thought about it. I think we’re a tough crowd to please (including some fairly esoteric criticism about architecture/developers…).. We all agreed that it is one of those books where the characters stay with you, in a slightly haunting way…. Look forward to your future post on book groups….

        Posted by Joanna Elson | February 8, 2012, 15:26
      • Thanks Joanna, it was a fantastic experience for me hearing everything you had to say about the book, and absolutely fascinating to see how very differently readers relate to the characters and situations. I got a huge buzz from seeing everyone get so worked up about it ! I think you’re right about being a tough crowd to please and that’s precisely why I wanted what proved to be very valuable feedback from you all. I’m always being told how lucky I am to have such willing and intelligent people to share my writing with, and I really appreciate it.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | February 8, 2012, 17:36
  2. Great post, I struggle with this all the time. Since I’ve started blogging and reading other book blogs I’ve found that my TBR list is growing exponentially. I always mean to pick something off the list to read but then some new, sexy book comes out and I can’t help but read that instead. Since I read most of my books on my Kindle (sorry!) covers don’t tend to play into my choice but it’s usually whatever book is stuck in my mind that I pick up.

    In an effort to combat my willy nilly book choices and get some oldies off my TBR list I started a A to Z reading challenge this year. I will choose two books for each letter of the alphabet off my existing TBR list thus reducing it by 52 books by the end of the year. So far I’m on pace to do it but we’ll see how it goes once the year kicks in and life gets busier!

    Posted by Jessica @ Shhh Mommy's Blogging | February 4, 2012, 20:32
    • Hi Jessica, thanks for your comment. Funny how having a TBR list can end up seeming quite stressful if you let it! Your strategy sounds like a good one. My focus for the first half of 2012 is my Hot Picks list, and will slot in other titles to review depending on what’s worth recommending. Apart from my book group choice each month, I read whatever I’m in the mood for, trying to avoid reading similar themes/setting/styles back to back. For that reason I often seem to alternate British and American books. Enjoy your reading and hope to see you here again!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2012, 21:12
  3. Hi Isabel,
    Nice article! Like you, I seem to have been reading some fantastic novels lately, and rarely coming across a dud. I think a lot of it has to do with how I choose books, which has changed dramatically in the past few years.

    In the past, my book choices were totally random. I’d walk into a bookshop without an idea in my head, and pick something off the shelf. Cover design, then, was extremely important, although I would also pick based on names I recognised either from newspaper reviews or the author’s general fame.

    Now I am much more organised, with a TBR list that, like Jessica’s, is totally out of control. I read a lot more about books, mostly on blogs but also on sites like Goodreads, and also more traditional reviews like the Guardian and London Review of Books. When I choose to read a book, it’s either because of a single recommendation that, either because of the book’s content or because I trust the person’s opinion, made me think “Wow, I have to read that right now” or, more often, from an accumulation of mentions in various different blogs and newspapers that lodged in my brain and pushed me gradually towards buying.

    I think you’re right about newspaper reviews being less important now, but I think they do still give a book a certain credibility, albeit in a different way from before. I think people read the actual reviews much less these days, and won’t rely on them so much because there are so many other sources of information, but I believe readers are still swayed by seeing a blurb on the cover with a reputable reviewer or publication’s name next to it. I know I am, anyway.

    Posted by Andrew Blackman | February 4, 2012, 21:49
    • Hi Andrew, how great to get such an interesting response from someone just down the road ! I agree with you about the ‘drip drip’ effect of hearing about the same book over and over again – that’s the power of word of mouth which seems to trump all else. It’s good to get your perspective on the newspaper review issue too – and I’m sure the critics will be glad to know some people still feel that way. BTW Love your book title – the Holloway Road gets a mention in my book too ! Thanks for getting in touch.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 5, 2012, 11:05
  4. I am very much a fan of judging by the cover these days. Publishing companies invest so much in marketing books that it really does tell you a lot eg. genre, target audience. Also, a cover which has clearly received investment above and beyond the average usually means they are expecting to make money on the book and that it is fairly well written.

    Oh and word of mouth, authors I’ve read and liked before, well written blurb, clever concept.

    Posted by Siobhan | February 4, 2012, 23:57
  5. I have to confess,I still read randomly,word of mouth,but do try to keep abreast of what is happening in Canadian literature,e.g. the Governor Generals awards…now I am onto your picks..why not? So far so good and your pick back in Provence of The Night Climbers intrigued me so much that afterwords I ended up reading all about the long history of this weird activity and bought the book for my own small library. That was a debut novel for Ivo Stourton!
    Some of my criteria are quirky..no loooong chapters,not too long a novel,although I recently read Elisabeth George’s
    Body of Death at over 800 pages. Being a fan of well written mystery novels,I was also curious as to what could possibly take so long to solve…must say it all worked brilliantly however. Nothing corny or schlocky although I try to respect the old “different strokes for different folks”..
    Good entry..interesting to see what your fans are coming up with.

    Posted by nessguide | February 5, 2012, 14:58
    • Thanks Ness, as a Canadian you are spoilt for literary talent. Amazing coincidence that you should mention The Night Climbers, I was thinking about that book just today and it will get a namecheck in this week’s forthcoming review of The Bellwether Revivals as I like them for similar reasons. Glad to hear that my reviews are giving you a few ideas of books worth reading – it’s fun being part of the word of mouth phenomenon!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 5, 2012, 17:21
  6. The old saying don’t judge a book by it’s cover I throw out and go against the norm.

    I often look at a cover in a book shop and if it looks interesting I purchase and read it.

    The Nudist On The Night Shift by Po Bronson had a naked man on the cover within a tower block and based on that cover I bought it, read it and since became a fan of all the author’s books.

    Posted by @stewpotStewart C.Bailey | February 5, 2012, 17:11
    • Well, Stuart, I hoped this post might spark a good debate and I have to say, I’m not disappointed! Putting naked men on book covers is a pretty daring move and I hope for the author’s sake that most people responded as you did, although I suspect some may not have done. Thanks for your contribution.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 5, 2012, 17:26
  7. Ooh yes – let’s play!

    No-Brainers: Anything by Sarah Waters, Jane Harris – and the next Hilary Mantel, which I’ve already ordered from Goldsboro Books (if you don’t know them, they do first edition hardbacks, usually signed).

    Covers: I’m still reeling from Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’, which may be the most beautiful cover I’ve ever seen.

    Book Group: I’m eternally grateful that someone in my Reading Group forced me to read ‘Room’, which I would never have touched otherwise. In all our years of reading together, there have only been two books we’ve all loved: ‘Any Human Heart’ and ‘The Uncommon Reader’.

    Word of Mouth: I’m due to start reading Roberston Davies’ The Cornish Trilogy because so many epople have recommended it to me.

    Lovely post, Isabel.

    Posted by Shelley Harris | February 5, 2012, 17:24
    • Thanks Shelley, glad you enjoyed it. I’ll certainly check out your various recommendations. I had to persuade one of my book group friends into reading Room, and she was glad she did in the end. However another member of our group has not yet convinced me to read Into the Darkest Corner. Can’t wait to read Gillespie & I….

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 5, 2012, 18:59
  8. Hi Isabel, I like a good cover myself (tho my new Kindle means that will change). But I’m starting to get impatient with publishers who use images / covers to remind you of other books (ie ripping off other covers). Although it’s a clever short-cut to telling you ‘this book is like that other one you read and liked’ the danger is that it all looks like something you’ve read before. (If that makes sense.) Sometimes this is done so explicitly that it feels quite cynical and little creativity involved. It obviously works from a commercial point of view tho cos otherwise they wouldn’t do it.

    Re what I read, I go through phases. Sometimes I want to read something completely different to a book I’ve just finished, other times I want to read more from the same author. Like you, I think a reading group is a good way of finding real gems (if you haven’t read Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, do).

    In a bookshop I read the first page and a page from the middle (tho I have managed to read plot twists more than once like this – doh!). I tend to finish most books I pick up tho that’s cos I’m probably fussier about what I pick up. Great post by the way


    Posted by Eleni Kyriacou | February 5, 2012, 17:29
    • Hi Eleni – gosh, this is fascinating stuff! I’m not sure I’ve come across the rip-off cover thing but it’s something I’ll be looking out for next time I’m in a bookshop. I also have a Kindle and I have to say, covers and back cover blurbs are something I really miss. I only read about 1 in 4 books on it however. Your strategy of reading a page from the middle is very daring and not something I would do, for the precise reason you gave! I’ve even heard some people say they read the LAST page when considering whether to buy a book, which sounds like madness to me. A bugbear of mine is the inside jacket type blurb, where in an attempt to be as enticing as possible, they often give too much away for my liking.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 5, 2012, 18:54
  9. I am also a sucker for a cool book cover, and actively avoid anything with swirly, flourished writing.

    I can usually tell from a blurb if I’m going to like it or not. There’s also this silly thing called the ’69 Rule’, supposedly if you read page 69 of any book you will know whether or not you’d like it, and I have been known to give that a go if I’m undecided.

    Nowadays, things usually end up on my to-read list if there’s a bit of buzz around it. I write book reviews for a website and if someone else writes a rave, that usually shoots to the top of my list. I also find blogs pretty useful, I remember using your ‘Best Books of 2011’ and ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2012’ lists as starting points, too.

    But there are some review copies that I’ve loved and I know I’d never have picked them up in a bookshop in a million years, so my own prejudices are probably stopping me from reading some really cool stuff. But you can’t read everything so I guess you just have to go with the odds, you know what you’re probably going to like.

    Posted by Cariad Martin | February 6, 2012, 13:04
    • Hi Cariad, I can always count on you for a great comment – your 69 Rule which I have never heard before had me so intrigued that I’ve just pulled 6 books I liked off the shelf and in all but one case something exciting was happening on that page. Then I turned to my own ms and thank God, something changes between two of the characters on that page. (Have you checked your own P69?!) Indecisive browsers, take note! Glad you found my listings useful but you’re right, of course, there are so many great things out there that we won’t ever get to read, not to mention some wonderful books which for one reason or another, don’t ever get published.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 6, 2012, 16:24
      • Haha, that’s funny that you’ve never heard about the page 69 thing before. Yeah, I just checked my own page 69 and there is some interesting stuff going on so that’s good!

        Posted by Cariad Martin | February 7, 2012, 21:16


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