How do you choose books? I know we’ve talked about this before, but since it’s a quandary I find myself in quite often–that is, what should I read next?–I think it’s worth re-examining. In fact, my brother-in-law has asked me a number of times how I choose what books to read and I usually mumble something about looking through the New York Times bestsellers and the “Sunday Review” (which is true!). But more often than not, I’m checking out those blurbs on the front and back covers of a book to find out those little nuggets of truth that tend to speak volumes about what’s inside.
Most recently I had been looking for buzz words like “funny” and “unputdownable” so I bought Absurdistan. And thankfully it is funny and mostly unputdownable. I like the novel’s intensity and Shteyngart’s irreverence and the unapologetically critical eye he turns towards in-groups ranging from Russian Jews to Brooklyn hipsters. It is most definitely absurd and ridiculous and in line with The Times‘s blurb on the back that Misha is “one of the funniest narrative voices in recent fiction.” He’s basically insane.
What other buzz words am I after? Last week I bought The Opposite of Loneliness and I would remiss if the single word “triumph” right above the title didn’t immediately catch my eye. Shortly before that I finished Beautiful Ruins and NPR’s Fresh Air considered that book “a literary miracle.” A miracle! It says so right there, by the author’s name.
While we were home I bought A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon because it was displayed in a section of Barnes & Noble to the effect of “if you liked this book, then you’ll like these others” that threw me into a panic of indecision and a case of the wants. The only blurb on the front says, “I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years.” I wanted to feel that too.
Another book in that same section, The Inheritance of Loss, similarly pulled me. Ann Harleman for The Boston Globe writes, “If book reviews just cut to the chase, this one would simply read: This is a terrific novel! Read it!” OK!
Book reviews are critical, for writers and readers alike, but Ms. Harleman brings up an interesting point: those blurbs do cut to the chase and sometimes they make or break a sale. I guarantee you thousands of people, myself included, will now read All the Light We Cannot See because it will have a blurb or a sticker or some kind of mention that it won the Pulitzer Prize. They are truly important.
So, Jared, I choose books based on the blurbs. And then when I’m really stuck on what to read next, I go through some of my favorite books and look for authors who wrote blurbs on the covers or inside the jacket and read their books. I have found lots of great new writers this way.
The secret is out! What about you? What do you do? Do you read all the Man Booker prize winners? Or National Book Award winners? Do you consult any lists or blogs or specific people? I’d love to hear.