How I Choose A Book to Read from Among the Madding Crowd

It gets more and more difficult to pick a good book to buy, beg, or borrow these days. Sometimes it feels like I’ve already read everything worth reading. Then I’ll hit pay dirt two or three times in a row. After a while, a dry spell strikes again and I’ll re-read some of the old classics or old favorites from my own bookshelves. Also, I’m usually juggling a couple of books at once — one I read for pleasure, one for enlightenment. In the best of both worlds, each volume should be both pleasant and enlightening. Yeah. Good luck with that.

But whatever the book, I demand at least some standard of good writing, which should engage the senses while feeding the mind, the heart, the soul, and the spirit. A book should be like a buffet, where you can taste and savor a little of it all. But, unfortunately, most books are like the reunion dinner I once attended where the only thing worth eating was the Kentucky Fried Chicken.

That’s why I love to read a good review. I get a glimpse of what the book is like through the eyes of the reviewer. Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for reviews on the internet are simply variations of — I liked, or didn’t like, this (expletive) book (expletive). I want to know WHY the reviewer liked, or didn’t like, this book (without the expletives). Also, unfortunately, many of the reviews have no standard of grammar, punctuation or spelling, to say nothing of how their words and thoughts are strung together into a cohesive and comprehensible whole. (No writing is perfect, but at least some attempt at a standard should be evident.)

So what else do I look for when trying to choose a book, besides reading a review? I hate to say it, but I do judge a book by its cover. At least initially. If the title and artwork don’t say — STOP — I don’t. So what does it matter if it’s the best book ever written if I pass it by without a second glance.

When I do pick up the book, I look at the author, the layout and design, the font size, and the spacing. I do this automatically because if the page is crowded, the ink too black, and the print too small or too large, it makes it difficult to read. If I’m reading for pleasure or enlightenment, why should I choose to be tormented by something published with no thought to the comfort of the reader? And it does not bode well for the product inside, either.

If all else looks right, I read the blurb. Not all blurbs are created equal, but they should give one an inkling of what the book is about. So, if the synopsis is interesting, I go on to scan the first page, then flip through and spot check for content. I hate getting into a book, only to be ambushed by gratuitous garbage. I don’t want to invest my time or my mind in an author whose writing must be bolstered by patronizing claptrap. There is a big difference between true-to-life adult problems and situations, and trash tossed in just to titillate small minds. And are there actually people out there who finish a book and complain about too few four-letter words? Gimme a break.

But the main thing I look for in a bookstore or library is an author I’ve already read and like. For instance, I’m a fan of the Jack Reacher series written by Lee Child. Although it is pulp fiction, Child has hit upon a very unique character, his plots are fairly good, and his writing holds up. Also, he is mostly clean. Although his character is ex-military, the author does not indulge in language for the sake of language. The worst mistake he ever made was allowing his huge, awesome character to be played by the diminutive Tom Cruise in the movie Jack Reacher. Cruising for the Most Miscast Movie Character.

But, after a while, trailing along after a certain author can be disappointing. If he is a prolific writer, like Lee Child and David Baldacci, the very process of churning out multiple plots over and over can weaken and strain the narrative after a while. For instance, I’m a fan of the late Dick Francis, especially his earlier novels. But they were mostly entertaining and nothing to write home about. Then, I happened upon The Danger – by Dick Francis, about international kidnapping, published in 1984, which made me sit up and take notice. This one I did “write home about”. It is his best in my opinion.

Now, don’t scream, but I’m not a big fan of women writers, though, of course, there are exceptions. On the one hand, some women writers tend to get too gushy, too sickeningly romantic, too introspective, too unadventurous, and too boring. I suspect their estrogen level might have spiked while their IQ level plummeted.

On the other hand, there is the new gaggle of women writers who think they have to “walk/talk/write like a man”. The pages of their novels are riddled with four-letter words, in-depth how-to commentaries on intimate relationships, and just about anything they think will level the male/female writer playing field. The GOOD women writers don’t have to lower themselves to that level. The writings of Eudora Welty will live on while Patricia Cornwell fades into the sunset. But I have to be careful when browsing in the “C” portion of a bookshelf. I’m a big fan of historical writer Bernard Cornwell.

Sometimes I check out the classics. I have bought a lot of them over the years because they can be read and re-read. That’s why they are classics. I recently wrote the post Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at Age 200: Still A Must-Read for the 21st Century after I had read the book for the umpteenth time, not realizing as I read it, that this year marks the 200th anniversary of its publication.

But not all books that might be considered classics are created equal. For instance, I’ve been trying to finish The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, which began life as a play in 1903 and was later published in book form. The setting is The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. It’s not my first reading because the story is intriguing, but the writing is pure purple prose paired with syrupy romance. The Baroness was the Barbara Cartland of the early 20th century.

Another author who gets tossed in the classic pot is the inimitable Jules Verne, who was ahead of his time in rich imagination, but whose writing was backward and curdled. A child could have written the stories better. I suggest the movies. They’re relatively better, and well-loved because of the vivid imaginary worlds. But to give the man his due, some of Jules Vernes’s ideas actually became reality, as in an electric submarine that didn’t have to come up for air. (See National Geographic article 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True — published Feb. 8, 2011 — sorry, no link).

But whatever your preference in reading material — do read. I also suggest you try to branch out from one particular genre by actually reading a friend’s recommendation sometimes. Okay. I confess. I once had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a book. This particular book had already been made into a TV series and I thought it was just another excuse for a lame soap opera.  So the book couldn’t possibly be any good, right? But my friend insisted that I read it because she had read it, she knew me, and knew I would like it. And since I was such a good and true friend I checked out the book just to please her. And since I didn’t have anything else to read, I read it.

It was Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Once I stuck my head in that book, it took an act of congress to get me out again. And I was working at the time. See what I would have missed out on if I had continued being obstinate? I loved the TV series, too.

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5 thoughts on “How I Choose A Book to Read from Among the Madding Crowd

  1. Great essay. NO ONE has to encourage me to read. I am ALWAYS in the process of reading a book. I choose a book based on whether the author has written other books I enjoyed. I also choose by reading reviews, both on line (such an amazon.com and The New York Times) and in print. Many magazines to which I subscribe include book reviews. Another VERY reliable source for recommendations is other readers. You’ve steered me to some very good reads and so have other avid-reader friends.

    I loved the “Lonesome Dove” books and the TV mini-series, too. The sequels are also good. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones were superb.

    • I KNEW IT!! I knew you would like Lonesome Dove. I need to read it again. You are such a soul sister, sister. We also bought the series. Need to watch it again. I also knew you would read reviews. You’ve steered me onto new stuff, too. But I can’t remember the names of the books you told me about. You know, the midwife series.

      • LOL Here we go again. I really hope we can meet someday because you and I are truly soul sisters. :>) I have the DVDs of “Lonesome Dove”, too. Should watch them again…it’s been a long time.

        I have finished all three “Call the Midwife” books and I’d like to send them to you. Next time I’m in town, I’ll take them to the P. O and send them on their way to you. They’re not heavy, they’re paperbacks. You’ll love them.

      • Thank you, Jo Ann. That’s very generous of you. I’ve just joined a second library here, but didn’t have time to get very far into it since it was late when I was there. I certainly look forward to reading the books.

      • Great. Can’t wait for you to read them so we can discuss. I’ll probably be going into town around the middle of next week. I’ll let you know when I’ve mailed them.

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