Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Judging a book by everything bar its cover

I was one of those kids who did not like to eat his greens amongst a lot of other things. I ate with my eyes. If I didn't like the look of it then I knew, I just knew, that I wouldn't like it. In fact any possibility of that happening was negated by my use of the present tense, "I DON'T like it." That vegetable did not exist in my future. You know how the rest of that conversation goes.

Now I'm what passes for an adult and everything I didn't like as a kid I pretty much relish now. I'm particularly fond of red cabbage actually even if it does give me wind. I've learned not to judge a book by its cover. Most of my books have pretty naff covers, to be totally honest, apart from Adrian Chesterman's cover to The Demolished Man (which I once saw as a poster in Edinburgh and I regret not buying it to this very day). In fact some of the covers I have are simply boring-in-extremis like the cover to Nabokov's Bend Sinister. There is no picture. All you have is a sickly yellow background with the title and the author's name on it. Oh, and Penguin's logo in the top right-hand corner. What were they thinking? Even those of us who aren't exactly put off by a cover like that; we're not exactly encouraged by it either.

Anyway, typical me, I'm not here to talk about book covers. Maybe I will one day. There are other ways we can judge a book without actually having to read the ruddy thing. Book reviews are a start. I do read them on occasion but I'm rarely swayed by them. My tastes are very much my own and things the general cognoscenti might hate, odds on these are the things I'll like and vice versa.

Word of mouth. This is a dangerous one. My wife never buys me books that aren't on my Amazon wish list any more. She has given up completely trying to anticipate what I'll enjoy unless it's a textbook on Beckett and I've so many of them she wouldn't know what to get me there either. In the past I've had books forced upon me by people desperate to pass on the word and then I've had to force myself in turn to get through the damn thing or arrange never to see that person for the rest of my life. Blurb on the other hand is different. They're just desperate for anyone to buy the book. I'm a little more tolerant of blurb but I take it with a pinch of salt.

Price is always a consideration. I was in Waterstones yesterday and I happened to pick up a copy of Bend Sinister, curious if the cover had improved over the years (which it had by leaps and bounds but what could they have done to make it any worse) and I checked the price: £8.99. Eight pounds and ninety-nine pence (roughly $18.25) for a 200-page paperback! My copy cost me 35p brand new in 1974. That's a 10% increase every year. I would never pay that for a book I know I can get for three quid in one of the many second-hand books stores Glasgow has.

The Reputation of the author is a factor I consider which is why I bought my copy of Bend Sinister despite its awful cover. When I was in my early twenties – and could afford to splurge for new books – I only bought books written by authors who had won serious literary prizes and, on the whole, this gave my reading a decent bedrock. That said, Hermann Hesse's Gertrude left me cold; even great men can have an off day I suppose.

Know thyself. It doesn't matter how great the novelist is, how many prizes he's won, how gushing the reviews are or if they're giving away free copies, if the book is about a subject I'm not interested in then you're on a hiding to nothing. So on my shelves in my office you will find no war books, no westerns, no historical romances, no fantasy, no horror, no spy thrillers, no sports memoires and so on and so forth, etcetera etcetera, yada, yada, yada. You get the idea. I'm not saying that there are no shining examples of each of the genres listed but I'm not interested in the subject matter. That said, I've read three of the 'Smiley' novels by John le Carré and five of James Herbert's including all of the 'Rat' novels but they are very much the exceptions. I've also read no crime fiction apart from the three 'Laidlaw' novels by McIlvanney but only because they were written by McIlvanney.

Gut feeling. There's nothing like it. It's how I discovered Richard Brautigan and Gaétan Soucy and a host of others. I looked at the covers, scanned the blurb, flicked though the book and just went for it.

The thing is, I feel guilty when people start talking about this author or that because I don't have first hand knowledge of their work. But I know that I won't like it. "How do you know?" they ask. I just know. One of my bosses once bought me one of the 'Flashman' books for Xmas and looking pleased as I opened that gift was a task and a half, and I don't think my mock-enthusiasm was very convincing; I'm a lousy liar.

The same goes for the literati and the inteligencia: "Have you read the new [insert pretentious-sounding name]? You haven't? [Short sharp intake of breath] Oh, you have no idea what you're missing." I do. I really do. Seven hundred pages about things I can't relate to, don't understand, don't want to understand, don't care about and am not in the slightest interested in. "But, if you only give him a chance." No. No way, Pedro. Why should I? I have only so much time. I know. I absolutely know, without the glimmer of a shadow of a doubt (that doesn't work does it?), that there are loads and loads of great books out there that I will never read and I can live with that. What matters is that the books I do get round to reading are great.

So [affecting snotty-nosed accent] what, pray do tell, do you read?

If you want a decent cross-section have a look at my Goodreads page.

You won't find everything I've ever read there but everything that is there has a review. It's a good site. I wholeheartedly recommend it. You can judge for yourselves how great any of them are. There are a few duds but, I think, just a few.


Gabriel Orgrease said...

My reading habits are all over the place.

I have backed off on science fiction and mystery mainly because I go through spurts of saturation in various genres.

For mystery, as an example, I like Crumley, Jim Thompson, Chesbro, von Gulik, Chester Himes, Constantine, Rex Stout, Simenon, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke and Carl Hiaasen. There is also a list of female mystery authors that I like.

What I don't like is Pynchon, Snow Crash, or any of the cerebral derivatives. I don't seem to care for books that are meant to be effin puzzles. I figured a long time ago that these types of books are not in my culture and have no need to be. That said, Finnegans Wake has always been a friend.

In old age as a reader though I tend to go towards books that are relatively simple and clean in their prose, like The Great Gatsby or anything by Joyce Cary or Daniel Defoe or Hawthorne. I really like Rabelais a whole lot even if it is in translation. Along w/ Flaubert. And there is the standby Dostoevsky... read Crime & Punishment the first time during a brief stint in jail. That was fun and memorable... at the same time reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Sometimes you have to read what is at hand. The same for my reading the Shorter History of Poland (a thick book) while in cardiac intensive care in a Polish hospital.

I do not read Romance as in Bodice Rippers... I suppose that is one genre I see no particular need for. I also have problems with Fantasy. My Horror I like to scare the crap out of me... but I rarely if ever read any of the popular genre of horror fiction. I also particularly hate Ken Follett, but that is for deep personal reasons best not dwelt on here. My family reads him and I tolerate the situation.

I like to read philosophy, mainly because it puts me to sleep. I am gearing myself up for an Ian Fleming James Bond marathon. I like to read books on UFOs, have quite a few of them (it is what my friends & family know to buy for me) and books about sport fishing, hunting, sailing, and goat husbandry and poultry raising. I have about 10' of shelves that are solely books about writing.

I am one of those who will buy a book before buying food.

I find the books I tend most to read, though on average, are the ones that I pick up out of a remainder pile. I like to read a whole lot of crap, as it is, and I kind of drive my wife nuts when I go about reading the texts of various madmen such as Saddam Hussein or the unibomber or the psychotic guy that writes a column of gibberish for our local penny newspaper.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for all that, Gabriel. 10' of book on writing, eh? And here I was pleased with my 5' of book on Beckett.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

Geeze... I maybe have 2" of Beckett. Not that I would not have more. I suspect 5' of Beckett is an equivalence worth 50' of writing books. The writing books you read once and that is about the end of it unless for a refresher now and then.

There is something said well for quality over quantity. Whenever I go out and about and run across any sort of a book store on return home my wife says she thinks I am bringing offers to appease the book god.

I have a short story not yet finished about a fellow that lives in his RV in the driveway because he has too many books in his house.

I got into a habit of buying books rather than borrowing them as I always felt guilty that I could not remember to return them to the library. Books tend to fade into the upholstery in our house. The last time I wanted to return books to the library it was a Saturday morning. I got distracted and set them down. It was two years before I found them again. I immediately grabbed them up and ran off to the library to liberate them. I have vowed to try not to go into the public library unless under dire need.

Dave King said...

5' of Beckett, eh? I envy you that! In the main I am in total agreement with what you say, but especially so when it comes to gut feeling, which I would link with browsing. There is nothing to beat reading a random passage or two. I used to find the story synopsis helpful, but these days I don't. I'm coming round to the thought that literature is what is left when you subtract the story.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Gabriel, there's many the time I've regretted not owning all the books I've read – I keep wanting to quote from them or check things and I can't even remember what I've read. I used to keep a list but you know what happens to lists.

Love the idea that literature is what is left when you subtract the story, Dave. I've never been that big on stories anyway; most of my short stories don't have 'em and the novels only pay lip service to 'em. I've always believed that a story can survive without a plot but not without a point.

BTW, gentlemen, I went away and measured – it's only 4' of Beckett; those shelves aren't as wide as I imagined. I suppose though if you printed out all the articles I've got on my computer there's got to be a good 6" – 8" there. I tried formatting the whole lot once, it was hundred and hundreds of pages and Word gave up on me.

The actual Beckett probably only comes to 1' and that's everything he ever wrote; all the rest are biographies and books about his writing.

Stewart said...

If you thought £8.99 for Nabokov's 'Bend Sinister' was too much (and I'm assuming you mean tht Penguin Modern Classics edition) then go look at the Penguin Modern Classics edition of John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown. That's right, it's not even 185 pages but the price tag says £13.99. This is no doubt because of the lengthy introduction and the Steinbeck estate and introduced both can't survive without royalies.

It's a grievance, true enough. But I get round it by picking up New copies cheap (or as cheap as I can) from Amazon Marketplace, AbeBooks, and eBay.

Conda said...

Your post is a good reminder that all writing is subjective. And good writing is in the opinion of the reader. This was borne home to me again and again when I worked in a bookstore. Many of our regular customers would always ask, "Will I like this novel?" To which I would reply, "I read it and I liked/disliked..." "Yes," the customer would say, "but you know what I like, should I read it?" I often guessed wrong--it's too subjective.

Jim Murdoch said...

Stewart, you're right, it was the Penguin Modern Classics edition and the price for the Steinbeck is obscene. I bet it's only $13.99 in the States too. That's something else I find had to live with. And like you I buy from wherever is cheapest – I have no loyalty – but my main problem is a limited budget; there are simply too many damn books out there and when the money's spent it's spent.

Conda, yes, I've been there. It depends on who's asking me. I never go far wrong with my wife and daughter but they're very much the exceptions.

Stewart said...

Actually, my Penguin Classic edition of Bend Sinister has £9.99 on the back, the price of most of the John Updike's Penguin are reissuing as classics.

I find myself stuck in a quandary because I do love the Penguin Modern Classics, almost to a fetishistic level, having over one hundred of them, never mind the Penguin Classics. But I would like it if they were just a little cheaper. But then I don't want those awful pound shop copies.

I don't mind the consistency though, in that the prices hover within a range, the Steinbeck a wild blip. It's the hardbacks that drive me mental, coming in anywhere between £12.99 right up to £30, in the case of Due Considerations by John Updike and both On Ugliness and On Beauty by Umberto Eco.

Conda said...

Yes, Jim, my close relations and books are easier also--mostly because all my family (myself included) are trained to say for birthdays, "I'm interested in this author now, here's a list of the titles I don't have yet." All my family are avid readers, and although books aren't as expensive as the Steinbeck (!)here, it still saves time and money. (And we don't know which title we're getting, so it's a surprise.)

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