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.