Wednesday, October 1, 2008

So Many Books…

By Stuart Sharp

What to read? That, more than anything else, more than ‘will I have time to finish this chapter before someone walks in and I have to actually do some work?’ more even than ‘if I put another book on this shelf is it going to collapse?’ is the question that hounds us as readers. There are more books published every year than we could possibly keep up with, even before we start delving into the huge body of classics, second hand paperbacks, and things found stuffed in the back of boxes that don’t look great, but you never know. Somehow we’ve got to choose between them.

Of course, if you mention this little problem to someone who doesn’t read quite so voraciously, it will probably earn you something of a funny look. ‘Just choose.’ they’ll say. ‘Pick something you like the look of.’

If only it were that simple. Don’t they know that judging books purely by appearance is quite proverbially the last thing you should do? Besides, several of my favourite books come with covers that don’t exactly shout across a crowded room. Take Tom Holt’s more recent comic fantasy works, for example. The Better Mousetrap and Barking both feature such plain, line drawing based covers that it actually took me a couple of tries to find them on my bookshelf a moment ago. Most poetry books are even worse, because they invariably follow a cover format dictated by the publisher’s standard design. In other words, they all look the same.

‘So just flick through them’ our bewildered friend would no doubt answer, and it’s true that doing so will at least eliminate a few of the worst examples. It will show up the badly written ones, the ones that desperately need about half the adjectives taken out. What it won’t do is tell you anything about whether you like the book, because that is something that owes quite a lot to pacing, character, setting and all those other things that are far more important than mere style.

It’s at this point that the humble review comes in useful, but even this is far from perfect. In the case of reviewers who you trust, such as the ones here hopefully, you’ve potentially got a very useful guide to what to read next. Unfortunately, so has everyone else, which means that the book you’re considering reading but aren’t sure enough about to fork out the money for will have disappeared from the library. A dozen other people read the same review, and they beat you to it.

There are other reviewers out there who you have to learn to ignore. It’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about, though some don’t. It’s more that they will never, ever read the same types of books you will, and even if they do, they will look for completely different things in them. You care about character and they’re busy rhapsodising about the setting. You want to know about the pacing, and they’re busy talking about how it’s all a clever parody of something you’ve never even heard of. They aren’t wrong, but they see books in such a different way they might as well be.

Of course, for most of us there are a few authors with whose work we won’t wait for the reviews. It always makes it easy to decide what to pick up next when one of your favourites has something new out. Except that it’s never quite that easy. Experience must surely teach us that publishing companies cleverly time their releases so that no one, not one single author, has a new book out when you’re looking for something new to read. Either that, or all your favourites have new books out, making a huge dent in your bank balance while still leaving the problem of choosing between them. Whoever timed it so that Laurell K. Hamilton’s Blood Noir and Kelly Armstrong’s Personal Demon should both show up at my local bookshop on exactly the same day that I took receipt of half of Robert Asprin’s back catalogue probably qualifies as some sort of evil genius.

I think the time has probably come for us to do the sensible thing… and abdicate the decision completely. There are two obvious ways of doing this.

One is to give the decision over to everybody else who can be bothered by putting it to a vote. Stick a poll up on a blog and people who would never vote on such ‘petty’ matters as who their MP is will rush to tell you what you should be reading. Even if they can’t decide what they’re going to read themselves, they’ll suddenly acquire firm opinions when it comes to telling someone they’ve never met what to do.

My problems with this approach are simple. Firstly, the question of whether you will even remotely enjoy the same sort of things remains. Secondly, and rather more importantly, it feels far too much like the sort of reading list I went out of my way to avoid at school. Every time you read something recommended in this fashion, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you ought to be writing an essay on it at the end.

That leaves us with the laws of chance. I’m something of a fan of the ‘shut your eyes in a library, reach out and see what you get’ method, though it could also work when choosing between a stack of books. Probably not with just two or three though. I suspect even I could remember where I put each book down in that scenario. Drawing titles out of a hat is always an alternative option, while I’m sure the more technologically minded of you are working on random book choosing computer algorithms as we speak. Well, not so much sure as hopeful, because I’d quite like a copy if you are.

The results, naturally, can be a touch hit and miss. Probability knows even less about your reading tastes than the average reviewer, and nothing about judging the quality of writing. The random approach can be quite fun though. I find it works best when you’re prepared to let yourself cheat a little. You come up with a result, decide you don’t want to read that and try again. And again. And again. Just keep going until your random method finally comes up with the book you secretly wanted to read all along. You see, it’s easier to choose than you thought.


Leatherdykeuk said...

Interesting article. I never buy by the cover any more - the internet - and particularly recommendations of the blogosphere - has left me with more books than I could ever read.

Andi said...

Oh, I wish this listing had made it less complex for me. Right now I'm using the "on a whim" method. But that leaves so much good stuff unread. There are worse things, I suppose.

Jodie said...

I love the random approach and libraries take out the financial element.