What is it that makes you pick up a certain book, and put another one back on the shelf? Publishers and writers constantly ask themselves this question, since what is the point of writing or publishing a book that will never be sold or read?
Thousands of books are published every year, so why do some of them catch on while most of them sink into oblivion? In the publishing world they say that “green books never sell”, which sounds funny when we know that “one never should judge a book by its cover”. Let us look at some of the incentives that make us choose one book before another.
oblivion, incentive, enigmatic, hunch, enticing, to perceive, prestigious, benchmark, to unfold
To some extent the title of a book is the bait that is supposed to hook you, but there is more to it than just that. A good title must spur your interest; it may be intriguing and enigmatic, like A Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Crimson Petal and the White. Such titles will appeal to your curiosity and you may want to find out what the book is about, but in general you should not rely too much on the title. In the past they thought that the title should be an introduction to the whole narrative, which resulted in titles like The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates. Written by Himself. Such an wordy title actually tells you more than you want to know, but the readers at that time were probably intrigued by this. These books would also often have headings for each chapter which would briefly sum up what was coming up in that chapter.
But the title is only the outside, and the truth is that in most cases the title of a book tells you nothing. You will have to read the book for the title to make any sense. So the conclusion should perhaps be: Don’t trust the title, but keep it in mind and reflect on it during and after the reading process.
The dust jacket of a hardback or the cover of a paperback will usually be your first visual encounter with the book, and if this is an eye-catcher your interest is spurred. Publishers are well aware of this and put much effort (and money) into the layout and design of a book cover. The cover illustration is the first impression and (even if it is green) may well be what gives you the hunch that this is an interesting book. The cover will also in most cases present an appetizer, “the blurb” which sums up the story’s theme or its plot in a brief and enticing manner. This information is carefully composed, in most cases by the author himself. The purpose is to tempt you into reading the book, but at the same time not give away too much of the plot.
Once you have decided on the book, you sit back in your armchair and start on page one. This is the crucial point where the author’s project really must prove it is worthwhile. Many people put down a book after having read the first couple of pages, because the narrative simply does not communicate anything to them. This is of course quite legitimate, but once you have set your mind on reading a book, you probably should try a little harder, because in many cases the narrative will grow on you once you give it a chance. The author knows perfectly well how this works, and puts much effort into an opening that will pull you into his story. His aim is to make you want to read on. Some examples:
“It occurred to me later that I must have registered their approach a minute or so before the first stone struck the window”. (Jem Poster: Rifling Paradise.)
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him” (Graham Greene: Brighton Rock).
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye)
The two first examples invite you directly into some dramatic “medias res”, and make you want to go on to find out more. The last example uses a different technique as it addresses you as the reader, which is a somewhat surprising approach. Such a narrative angle can be a daring literary style, because it is a one-way communication where the protagonist supposes what “you” want to know, while he himself is in full control of the narrative.
Reviews, Prizes and Bestsellers
If you pick up a book because it has been recommended by a friend, you should remember that reading is a very private and individual experience and it will normally turn out differently from person to person. So even if your best friend finds a book enjoyable, the chances are that you may find it a bit of a let-down. Virginia Woolf put it like this (in How One Should Read a Book, 1926):
"The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading, is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions."
A book review is to some extent also a subjective presentation of how a book is perceived, but a review is usually written by a professional and experienced reader and will give you a more substantial commentary on many aspects of the book. Many newspapers have a weekly literary supplement, which may be well worth browsing into if you want to follow what goes on in the literary world. Every year there are a number of literary prizes awarded to successful books. Many of these awards are prestigious and are perhaps the best benchmark if you want to find a book with that certain literary quality, because the panel behind the award usually consists of a combination of experts - publishers, book-sellers, critics and writers. Still another guide for many readers are the best-seller lists which are published from time to time. However, one should remember the fact that a book that is sold in millions of copies does not necessarily mean that it is a good book by literary standards. The book charts will give you a hint of what many people like to read, but quality and quantity are not the same thing. There are many examples of books that have topped the best-seller lists for months on end but were never awarded any literary prize and were butchered by the critics. And at the same time, books that are highly acclaimed by critics, may not give you that much of a reading experience.
So how do you spot a good book? Well, there certainly are some basic characteristics that will define literary quality, but people are different and at the bottom line a good book for you is simply one that you enjoy. So whatever you read and whatever makes you pick up just that particular book, what is important is that you allow the universe of a good story to unfold in your mind. Let yourself be thrilled, provoked, sad, angry, surprised, happy, entertained – it all comes with the joy of reading.
What are your incentives when you choose a particular book that you want to read?
In the modernist movement, writers and artists launched the slogan: “Art for art’s sake”. What do you think they meant by that?
Discuss what happens when a book presents a narrative style that addresses the reader as “you”?
What happens when a book becomes digitalised? Discuss what is won and what is lost if the e-book conquers the market of the traditional paper book.
- Carry out a survey and then make a chart of the most popular books in your class, your school, or your family.
- Go on the Internet and find book titles and cover illustrations that you think are intriguing. Present your findings for the class.
- Consult your local library and find out which book(s) are borrowed most frequently.
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