Sunday, December 6, 2009

What's it all about?

A few days ago, looking at my stack of unintentional book purchases (I tried not to, but gift cards and 4 for the price of 1 [expensive book!] sales made it a little difficult...), I noted two interesting things. The first is that that when I buy books at a bookstore with my own two hands, I'm a little more careful about which specific copy I get to make sure the one I take home won't be bent or dusty. The second is slightly more interesting. Once home, I realized that I hadn't read a single one of the summarizing blurbs for these six books. I purchased based entirely on previous knowledge: sometimes complete, sometimes not.

Two books I purchased because they're part of a publisher series I quite like. One of these came heavily recommended while the other I looked up beforehand online. It looked interesting and was on sale. Alright, legit. The third book was also recommended by a couple of trustworthy sources. Actually, the author had been mentioned; I had no idea which book of his to read. I ended up picking the fattest one. The fourth book I took because I'd heard about the author. That's all. Name recognition and nothing else. The fifth and sixth books I chose because I've already read a book by their respective authors. In both cases, I wasn't blown away but felt I should give the authors another chance.

So the question: Do I actually need to know what a book is about before reading it? I'm leaning towards the "no" end of the spectrum. Several times in the last few months I've read books when I've known next to nothing about them and I've enjoyed them. The good ones, at least. Books with blurbs lead to expectations. You expect the book to follow the story summary and fit those perfectly chosen publisher phrases to the T. If it doesn't, it's a disappointment. If you're apathetic about the book, you end up feeling whatever the publisher wanted you to feel. And manipulated. If you liked it, no harm no foul. But reading a book ignorant is like eating with a blindfold on. Sure, you know the general genre (and if you spend as much time researching books as I do, tend to know a little bit about the author and writing style - thank you internet), but surprise and excitement lie within the story, in the "meat". It unfolds with no expectations and progresses as simply as any book can. If it's bad, it's bad. If it's mediocre, it's mediocre. And if it's amazing, it's your new best friend.

There's a second part to this question. What does it mean that a book sounds good? Essentially, books sound like they've been marketed. If a publisher tells me a book is a great work of international literature, something that will change how I view the world... yeah, I'll probably bite. But for all I know, it's a love story that just happens to take place in the non-Anglocentric world. Do I need a book to sound like it might be interesting in order to enjoy it? The books I hated most the last year have had "intriguing" stories. That's not enough. So once I have a vague notion what type of book it is (based even on a bookseller saying it's vaguely like this other book I liked, or the publisher selling it alongside a superb book, for instance), why should I bother?

I have no idea. I'm curious to know what others think, though. The floor is open.


  1. Hah, I bet you take newspapers from the middle of the pile too! (So do I!)

    I too have often wondered what makes me pick up a book, and really I have no idea either. It must resonate with something in our subconscious minds, I suppose. I'll be interested to see what theories anyone else has!

  2. On the one hand, I almost always know what books are about before reading them, because I do so much meta-reading and am not bothered by spoilers. But on the other hand, while this doesn't diminish my enjoyment of a book, it may make it less likely I'll pick it up to begin with. I'm always saying to myself, "I'm just not interested in a book about [a fictionalized de Tocqueville/a teacher and his students/a woman trying to get ahead at a fashion magazine/etc.]," when in fact I don't actually place that high an importance on plot when I do like a book.

    Of course that touches directly on "sound[ing] good." It's a tough question. I've come to rely almost exclusively on branding, whether that means the author's "brand" (name) or the publisher's. Lately whenever I've gone outside the confines of that it's been for one of my reading "flights," where I'm led from reference to reference by the books themselves. So I guess I've sort of lost a lot of faith in the idea of sounding good--too many books that have sounded quite good from book-specific marketing that just don't turn out to be very special (but then, hardly anything does).

  3. #1-Often times reading blind is the best way to read a book. No expections, no disappointments. If I enjoyed another work by the author then I usually prefer to read blind.

    #2-A book sounds good if reading the back cover makes me want to read what's inside the covers. It doesn't always work out but that's okay. There are lots of other choices out there. The hard part is not being pulled in by all the hype presented by those with a stake in the book's success. An honest opinion is always appreciated but manipulation rarely is.

  4. I'm very picky about the conditions of the books I buy in bookstores too.

    I usually buy books based on whether I've read and enjoyed the author before and/or what I have heard about the book from trusted sources and/or whether the premise of the book seems like one I would enjoy. I've gotten to the point where I seldom randomly select books from the bookstore shelf looking for something that sparks my interst.

    What books did you get by the way? :)

  5. I am a total sucker for books sounding good and usually will stay hooked through the reading of the blurb/book review/jacket only to find in the first paragraph that I would kill myself if I had to read such bad writing for longer than a few words. This happened recently with A Train to Paris. I was all primed to actually buy this one - I usually filter my purchases through the library first - and then read the first paragraph and gagged. Another thing that really gets me is when all the characters have the same voice. A book could have all my favorite elements, but if the writing is poor, the characters cardboard, the book's dead in the water for me.

  6. I like not knowing much about the plot -- plot doesn't matter as much to me as characters and voice and style, so I get impatient with book reviews that are mostly plot. Comparing the author to other writers is much more useful, I think. So I don't really need to know what a book is "about" -- instead, I'd like to hear about just about everything else!

  7. I most likely pick up a book because 1) I am familiar with the author whose works I have enjoyed; 2) a trusted book blogger has mentioned the author; 3) the blurb intrigues me; and 4) the book speaks about a subject that I'm passionate about. But sometimes it is frustrating if the plot doesn't live up to the intriguing glimpse.


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