By Stuart Sharp
A lot of us, when we read, like to stick to what we know. I certainly do. Like most people, I have favourite authors whose work I’ll buy simply because it’s them doing the writing. If it weren’t for my cunning book filing system of ‘shove everything wherever it will fit’ you’d see long lines of novels by Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, and a dozen others, most of which I bought without even thinking about whether this one of their books was as good as the others.
It helps that, as a regular reader of fantasy and horror novels, that habit is catered to by authors who believe in long series of books. There’s no need to take a risk on the writing of someone new if you still haven’t read all of the thirty or so novels Terry Pratchett has produced. Failing that, there’s Robert Jordan’s more or less endless Wheel of Time series. A couple of cricketing friends of mine once began a race of sorts through that series, and I still don’t know who won, because the five and a half months of the cricket season passed before they got round to finishing.
Recommendations are another way of sticking to the known. Close friends, not to mention strangers on most forms of public transport, are only too happy to tell you about the book they’ve been reading. Bookshops and libraries do it all the time too, putting up ‘if you like that, you’ll love this’ suggestions. The question here is one of trust. It’s easy to find yourself staring at these strangers, searching for some clue as to whether they share the same taste in books or not. Is that a novel you’ve read sticking out of their bag? It’s a surprisingly good way of clearing space on a train.
Reviewers are one set of strangers whose reading preferences are fairly easy to find out. If you liked the last book a reviewer commented favourably upon, there’s a good chance you share enough in common with them to enjoy this book too. Agreeing on books you hate doesn’t seem to be as good an indicator, though. Maybe good writing is a matter of personal taste, while rubbish is more universal. Who knows? Either way, it’s just another means of trying to stick to known quantities.
The extreme version of this urge involves re-reading books until you know every twist and turn by heart. It’s the impulse that had people re-reading the entire Harry Potter series every time a new one came out. You could just jump into the new book, but the excuse for another re-read is too good to ignore. With other books, the more highbrow the better, you can claim to be scouring them for new nuances, but the effect is the same. Eventually, I suppose you reach a saturation point of sorts, where even the best loved book won’t take another re-read, but we all know how many times you can go through a book you know before you get to that point. I have to admit it takes me a while to get to this point, because my memory lets me conveniently forget most of a book within a week or two of reading it. It has its advantages. In theory, given half a dozen books, I could just go round and round.
But there comes a point when even I find that the known becomes just a little too familiar. It’s the point where you can pick out a Kathy Reichs’ villain within a couple of chapters, and explain most of the science. It’s the point where every time you pick up a new book, you feel like you’ve read it before, solely because you’ve read a dozen books just like it.
That seems like a good point to step off into the unknown. To grab a book you’ve never heard of and break things up a bit. It should be easy… right?
This is where things get a little difficult. I could just go to the nearest bookshop and buy something at random, but there’s always a tight fisted part of me that doesn’t want to fork out for something that might not even be to my taste. Besides, I might go there with the intention of buying something completely different from what I normally read, but you can bet that my feet will have other ideas. I’ll be walking over to the most familiar sections of the place before I’ve even realised it. Once I’m there, it’s inevitable that a favourite author will have a new book out, so I’ll get distracted in my search for something new.
Libraries probably represent a better option, if only because of the lack of cost involved. There’s still a problem with going back to familiar sections, of course, but even this is slightly less of an issue if your local library is anything like mine. There’s no danger of getting sucked into an author’s whole series of books, because they’ll only have the first volume. Or, more probably, the third.
The only problem remaining is that you’ll still find yourself drawn to familiar styles of cover. Often that’s beneficial, after all, I’d never have read any of Robert Asprin’s books if I hadn’t seen one out of the corner of my eye and mistaken it for a Terry Pratchett novel I hadn’t read. For the sake of stepping into the unknown though, it’s a bit of a problem. One for which I have a simple solution. Shut your eyes. I’m serious. The next time you’re in a library, shut your eyes, reach out, and at least consider reading whatever book your hand finds. Probably best to do this when no one’s watching though. For some reason, they seem to think it’s odd.
Probably the best all round solution though, and certainly my favourite, is the second hand bookshop. They have the advantage of cheapness, and the not inconsiderable advantage that most of them have a book filing system that mirrors my own. If you’re looking for something specific, that might be a problem, but if you’re after something new, it’s perfect. These days, you’re probably not going to find a valuable first edition for a pittance, because funnily enough the owners tend to know a thing or two about books, but you might find something you haven’t read before. I only started reading Tami Hoag’s novels for this reason, finding one tucked for no apparent reason under a stack of old cricket books. Of course, I then went on to work my way systematically through her other books, because some habits die hard, but that’s not the point.
So why not do it? Yes, I know you’ve almost certainly got long lists of books you’re intending to read. Yes, there’s always a risk that the book you choose will turn out to be awful. I think though, that it’s worth it. Take a step into the unknown.