Thursday, March 6, 2008

How do you choose what to read?

With so many books in the world, how do you decide what to pick up next?

For me, it's a combination of recommendations by friends and media reviews (predominantly in The Courier Mail and The Australian), and on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club (when I remember it's on).

Unfortunately, so much of what's offered up as review simply isn't: it's just a rehash of the plot with a few sweeping statements and/or clichés (of course this isn't limited to book reviews).

I'll choose to read a book based on a review when:
- the plot, genre or subject matter appeals to me;
- the reviewer discusses the themes of the story and the questions it raises (and they appeal to me);
- the reviewer offers a broader context for the narrative that has meaning for me.

The details of the plot are almost irrelevant in a review: they should be discovered on reading the book itself. The importance of the review is to tell you what you might expect to think or feel during and after reading the story: will it make you question the political status quo; appreciate the simpler things in life; help you understand a different perspective; or laugh your backside off? Is it pure pop fiction escapism, or a journey of perfectly crafted prose? Is it a good example of either?

You can't trust the cover or the hyperbolic marketing blurb to help you decide whether not you want read something. And that's where the review comes in handy. It's not a sure fire promise of a good read, but you at least have a clue what you're in for.

Clearly, plenty of readers want someone to point them in the right direction. That's why Oprah's Book Club creates instant bestsellers. Life is too short to waste on books you might not like, especially if you're not a voracious reader. (Purists scoff at Oprah's Book Club, but if it's getting people reading and taking the fear out of book selection, then it can't be all bad. And who knows, maybe those readers will one day stray from the bestseller list to more challenging fiction.)

Some of my recent reads, and how I came to choose them:
- The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (currently reading) - numerous newspaper reviews
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - desire to read book before seeing the film
- The Tomorrow series by John Marsden (I'm working my way through this series in between other books) - recommendation by family member
- The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay by Rebecca Sparrow - heard author speak at local library
- The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day - recommendation by friend (on this very blog!)
- The Broken Shore by Peter Temple - newspaper review and comment on First Tuesday Book Club
- Dead Point by Peter Temple - based on my enjoyment of The Broken Shore.

And so the list goes on…

I'd really love to hear how other people decide what to read. Are there particular reviewers you enjoy? What appeals to you in a review? Are you in a book club (if so, how to do you choose your books for the group)?

So many questions…


Christine of the Library said...

Hey Paula,
Great blog. Have been meaning to check it out ever since you sent me the link. Loved reading about the books but my favourite part was the 7 random things about you. What a complex and profound woman you are!
I just finished reading City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. I'm a sucker for his books. Other good reads by Dalrymple include From the Holy Mountain and White Mughals. These are non-fiction accounts of travels in India, Greece and the Middle East, but also historical accounts.
Once I like an author I tend to eventually read all their works.
I too use reviews and friends' recommendations (friends with taste that is), but I also love Radio National's The Book Show. It's broadcast each morning at around 10am (I start work late these days) and what I love are the interviews with authors. It's great to hear a novel explained by the author and not just some reviewer's interpretation. I almost always want to rush out and buy the book being reviewed, no matter how bizarre the topic.
Anyway, keep up your writing and your blogging. You may even end up blogging the great Australian novel or writing the great Australian blog.
Ciao bella,
Christine of the Library

Paula Weston said...

Thanks for the post Christine.

Book recommendations, review tips - what more could a blogger ask for?

Dalrymple sounds fascinating. Will definitely add him to my list. And I'll also try and catch the Radio National interviews when I can. I agree: it's always enlightening to hear an author's thoughts on their own work, motivation, inspiration etc.

Look forward to more book discussions in the future!

Salty Letters said...

Nicely written !

So,keep up your writing and your blogging!

Bec said...

Well two of the books we are reading for book club this year actually came from reviews written by you, on this blog!!! I never really realised it, but I do like reviews that tell me what I might expect to think or feel while reading the book - maybe this is why I enjoy your reviews so much. I do also like being a member of a book club though, simply because I read books that I would often never read of my own accord. It is interesting to find how my expectation of a book is often so different to my actual experience. I have read many books through book club that I didn't expect to enjoy, but loved, and vice-versa. So I guess, while I love reading reviews and choosing books based on what I think I will like, I also enjoy being challenged to read books I normally wouldn't choose. The gems that are found unexpectedly, seem all the more brighter for that lack of positive expectation. I hope that makes sense (feeling a bit foggy today - sorry for rambling!!)

Paula Weston said...

Salty letters - thanks for the kind comment. Feel free to visit and join the conversation any time!

Bec - you're post made perfect sense (no rambling!). In fact, I'd love it if you ever wanted to randomly recommend a book (even if it doesn't seem relevant to a particular post), as I too like the idea of discovering a hidden gem. That way, I can be a kind of defacto member of your book club.

I'm quite enjoying The People of the Book, although I seem to be struggling to find reading time at the moment. Will blog on it when I finish.

Salty Letters said...

Thanks for inviting me,.
Due to less knowledge..I do have to teach myself in learning hów to read, or more: whát to read.
Thanks for your advise...
Yes.. I dó have to learn more and more.. expanding a readersworld.. expanding a english readersworld..

Thank you so much to be a teacher to me!

Paula Weston said...

Hi Salty letters,

I really enjoyed your English blog post. I actually tried to post a comment but had difficulty for some reason.

The topic of your post is a wonderful sentiment, and sadly, one that seems to be increasingly hard to grasp (and sustain) in our Western society.

I'm glad you enjoy this blog. Hope you find some good book recommendations here!

charley said...

Since I've started blogging, I've been choosing many of reads based on blogger reviews. I work at a children's bookstore, so I also try to read the books that sell well. And, though judging a book by its cover is not always the best idea, I do choose books based on a snappy title or interesting cover art.