Musing about books and covers and “judging” and reading

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.

18 thoughts on “Musing about books and covers and “judging” and reading”

  1. What a great post, JP. As I may have said before they make one think and in a rush-rush world as the web is, that is a decidedly good thing. Yes please do continue sharing such stuff.

    I may extend this with my own list of ‘why I read what I read’ and ‘how I find it’ sometime.

  2. Thanks Shefaly. BTW I notice you’re going to be at the Digital Britain unconference at the ICA next week, good chance for us to meet up.

  3. Nice…didnt realise it could be that much of a science, perhaps bordering on GTD :-) ! But thinking about it I guess I pretty much follow similar or some of the above, with some exceptions like # 5 . But I do have one subconscious sore-thumbing technique if I may call it that – time permitting, and when I am in a physical book-shop,I do read the first few pages of the book- if they grab me then chances are it works for me. Hasn’t failed me thus far. The other thing that I tend toward is away from content and more the touch & feel of the book …there have been occasions when I have put down an intended purchase only because the print looked too small or the binding too flimsy !
    And hey – do keep these posts rolling

  4. Yes, indeed I have and we have had a few cool ones since…Also managed to hook up with Vinu Chps on FB and he has some real cool pics up there of the Xavier’s gang …Rollie, Katyals, Vishnu, Sid Probir etc etc .

  5. Thanks JP that was very useful and also entertaining. I use some of these techniques myself, particularly the aisle traversal and trusted friend techniques but I am also very prone to the soundbite technique where a book may be featured on Radio 4 which I would not otherwise have read but the excerpts are fascinating or the authors have interested me. I picked up Jonah Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment from one such show and was delighted.

    I also tend to pick from the “Further Reading” of books I have enjoyed, especially non-fiction.

    My Shelfari and Librarything reccomendations can also lead me to the serendipitous selections in addition to Amazon. I find that Amazon makes too much of recent views/purchases than historical trends.

    I shall now be ordering Mr Suarez’s Daemon as well, not just on your recommendation but also because of the further reading as I have enjoyed enjoyed a number of those books myself.

    So please keep on with the posts so I can pick up some new reading

  6. Harsha, MarcW, thanks for your comments. I’m still trying to figure out what’s the best thing to do in terms of the LibraryThing and Shelfari stuff. Currently playing with CompletelyNovel.

  7. JP, thanks for sharing — both your general techniques (which I tend to use, too), and the specific recommendation of Daemon, which is now on my queue.


  8. One other approach. Rave reviews from friends. This book is important. You may love it, or hate it, but it won’t leave you luke warm.

  9. One of Waterstones “if you like..” shelf note recommendations put me onto Chris Bachelder when looking for the latest Douglas Coupland.

    Influences would help – in your example, Jared Diamond would have got my attention. And I certainly agree on the Economist as an excellent source of reviews.

  10. Thanks for sharing this, I read this when it was posted and it rang true to my methods of discovery (I also use Amazon recommendations to surface things).

    I had Daemon on my Amazon Wishlist for quite a while, but under Suarez pseudonym Zeruas. I never connected the two books, but after your praise I took time to sort out it was the same book and it arrived. I am about 80 pages from the end in 24 hours as it has been that good.

    Daemon is now on my list of favorites reads, even though I am not quite done.

  11. Confessions of an economic hit-man is a wonderful piece of self-delusion, written by an author who’s clearly compensating for his own minor role in world events. I hope you read it for its comedy value.

  12. This is great, please do keep sharing these types of things.
    It would be great to map the connected-ness of recommendations via a graph. Job for someone handy with the amazon api?


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