I read a lot of books. For decades I used to average ten books a week, but nowadays it’s probably closer to two or three. Nevertheless, I read a lot. And I’ve been reading a lot for over forty years.
When it comes to choosing what I read, I have a variety of techniques:
1. Past-predicts-future: This is by far my most common technique. When I read someone for the first time, and I really like the book, the author goes into my unmemorised unwritten “look-out-for” list. Then, whenever I go to a bookshop and browse around, that author’s name is stuck in my head as I traverse the aisles, and if I see something new by that author, I pick it up. Both aisle-traversal as well as pick-newer are themselves techniques which I describe later. Past-predicts-future is an unordered list of authors I like whom I then look out for when wandering past any collection of books.
2. Aisle-traversal: Whenever I go to a physical bookshop (and here I mean a real bookshop, not a newsagent masquerading as one), I have a simple plan. I go through new releases, shop recommendations, signed books. Then, if time permits, I wander across to mystery/thriller/crime/detection. Once that’s done, if I still have time, I shuffle past the literature section. And then it’s science/nature/mathematics/physics. Which tends to lead me towards computing, and then I settle for a while in business/management. If I still have time on my hands, I get to biographies, then poetry, then art and history, finally humour. Aisle-traversal is an ordered list that defines my journey within a physical bookshop, very sensitive to the time I have available.
3. Pick-newer, pick-older and its variants. Quite often, the first book I read by an author is somewhere in the middle of that person’s oeuvre. If I like that book, then I move into the past-predicts-future technique, but only picking newer books, chronological-forward. If I like the second book as well, then, depending on how much I like the two books, I go into different overdrives. The commonest overdrive is pick-older-from-the-start: I start reading everything that author has written, in chronological order. Sometimes that develops into get-whole-collection-signed-first-edition. Occasionally I don’t wait, I try and acquire the complete works signed straight after book two. This technique is really about extending the reach of an author already on my to-read list.
4. Trusted-friend: The first three techniques are all about authors who are already on my to-read list. So how does someone or something enter the list in the first place? Here I have four subcategories. The first is written reviews: I am a big fan of Kirkus Reviews: a starred Kirkus review is pretty much an order for me to go out and buy the book. I also read both New York Review of Books as well as London Review of Books, and occasionally the Times Literary Supplement as well. The Economist and the Financial Times are probably the only other “reviews” that make this cut. The second subcategory is the human trusted friend, someone I know whose reading taste I respect. I have a small number of such friends; there is a variant to this subcategory, where the friend is an author. In third place is the social web, the chatter from twitter and facebook and the blogosphere. And finally there’s the Amazon recommendation. These are my primary techniques of introducing someone new into the mix.
5. Pre-publication reviews: There are some publishers I trust enough to go looking into what they’ve come out with. I’m always relaxed about buying Dover for maths and physics and logic and number theory; I like the kind of stuff that Nicholas Brealey puts out, so I look out for the imprint; similarly I have time for O’Reilly and Penguin and Pearson for technology and management, for No Exit Press and Mysterious Press and Hard Case Crime. My sister’s a publisher, so sometimes I find out about authors from her. You get my drift. Sometimes I inject fresh blood into my reading stream as a result of the publisher’s reputation. It’s really an upstream review, when you think about it. A commissioning editor is a bit like a reviewer, only pre-publication.
6. Things-that-go-bump-into-me: This is the serendipity technique, the random element. How I discover authors I’ve never heard of, authors who don’t come recommended. Three subtypes. First, because I am known to read, I get given books as presents for all kinds of things and in all sorts of ways. Second, because I am at an airport or similar, in a hurry, with a long trip ahead, and I haven’t had the time to load up with fiction. [I have the Bible and a bunch of business/management articles always to hand]. In such cases I look at the endorsements on the cover and back of the book. Occasionally there’s a third route, a variant of the endorsement. I check out the reviews inside the book, but this is rare for two reasons: they’re not there, or I haven’t the time.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I’ve just finished reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. A book I bought really as an airport read, one of those “exclusive airport only editions”, bought because I’d already picked something else up and I was looking for a “2 for £20″ companion.
The front cover looked vaguely infotech, so I started browsing. The tagline “Michael Crichton for the Information Age” didn’t do much for me. The back cover did have some endorsements: someone from Google, someone from the White House, someone from Time Magazine. Not quite Yawn. But close.
So I flipped to the back of the book. Two sections of interest there. One, “Further Reading”. A list of books that included Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab, Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy, the McClure/Scambray/Kurtz Hacking Exposed and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. Oh-kaay. Mr Suarez had my attention now. Anyone who recommends books like that for further reading was someone I was interested in reading.
Then I flipped back a little. Acknowledgments. The people the author wanted to thank. And there I found Stewart Brand, Don Donzal, Craig Newmark, John Robb, along with the authors of the Further Reading list.
I was hooked.
I finished the book last night.
It was excellent. Well written, consistent, different, exciting. [Thank you Daniel Suarez. I shall be looking out for more from you.]
You know something? All this made me think. Maybe it’s time for authors to put the names of their influences and mentors on some easily accessible part of their books. A bit like a blogroll, it’s one way of figuring out what the author’s about. I think this will become more important as things like the Kindle take off worldwide.
Views? Has this been helpful? Should I continue to share stuff like this. Comments welcome.