Special Interest: Choosing the Right Books

One of the most terrible tragedies in this world for a bookworm is that there are always more books. Always that knowledge that for every novel you read, there are a thousand others being published that very moment. And while the selection and introduction of your newest read to your overflowing bookshelf is a thing of exhilaration and anticipation, how does one get to such a situation?

Retracing your steps, return to that moment in the bookshop when that spine first attracted your attention. When you first ran your finger down the title, pulled it from the shelf and held it hopefully in your hands. What was it that encouraged you to exchange money for that bundle of potential joy? For me, there’s nothing better than a little bit of ritual behaviour.

As a child interested in writing, I spent much of my time listening to English teachers tell students that the most important part of a novelist’s job was the opening chapter. I was given “Handy Hints”, “Tips ‘n’ Tricks”, and once or twice entire information books on the subject. “Catch the reader’s interest, because Chapter One is what decides whether they read your novel or not.” From the first moment I had my eyes opened to this ‘fact’, I memorised the various techniques and immediately put them to use in the incomplete works of my childhood, No Place Like Home and Rebecca. However, after suffering regular reiteration of this author’s aid, I became overly sensitive to it. My opening paragraphs began to lose traces of emphatically short, snappy sentences, and mysterious, dramatic descriptions that would “leave the reader wanting more”. But as my animosity to these systems grew, I found it harder and harder to choose books to read myself.

For most would-be readers, the standard procedure for book-selection is as follows:

  1. Judge it by the cover. Who doesn’t like a pretty cover?
  2. Read the blurb. Is it to your interest? Yes? Excellent.
  3. Page One, Chapter One. Read it. Or at least a few pages.
  4. A book from heaven itself! What an opening. I’m going to need another bag for this baby.

But is this really the most efficient way?

It has come to my attention that almost every Chapter One I read these days contains the blatant use of one of our attention-grabbing clichés; an unavoidably frustrating fact for me. For this reason, I find myself with an irresistible urge to throw the novel into the nearest charity shop donations pile and walk away without a glance back. Not something very productive for a bookworm, I should think.

I therefore devised a different system, one which allows you to see more of the author’s style, and doesn’t allow readers to get caught up in the opening chapter A+ baloney. And so far for me, it has produced faultlessly pleasant results (and a very grumpy charity shop owner).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Like that cover? You’re right, it is nice. Let’s take a closer look.
  2. Blurb. Blurb, blurb, blurb. Is this the type of book you enjoy? You know the drill, I’m sure.
  3. So you’ve read the blurb. Your intrigue has peaked. But wait! Don’t do that, don’t open that front cover. Chapter One? No way. Let’s try right in the middle. That’s right. Open it to a random spread near the centre of the novel.
  4. But why? I hear you wail. Well, comparatively, the first chapter is irrelevant to the writer’s style. By the middle of the book, the author has had a fair chance to really understand their characters, and the plot is at its climax, its most complicated – this is the point before any of those loose strings are tied together. The writing is in full flow, and rich with the style of its author. If you want to sample their natural technique, the middle is the place to go.
  5. Now, having avoided those terrible stereotypical opening lines, you have the real flavour of the writer’s linguistic talents. Do you like it? Do they sit comfortably with you? If the answer is “Absolutely!”, go right ahead and read it. This book should be brilliant for you.
  6. However, things aren’t always that certain, I know. Maybe their plot didn’t interest you too much, or perhaps the characters seemed a bit dull. But, actually, the way they worded that brilliantly snide observation of the modern urban life was incredible, wasn’t it? Then your course of action goes thusly: open that book, right there, in the bookshop. Turn to that dreaded Chapter One. But read beyond! The end of Chapter Two, or Three should do. By this point, the author has had two or three chances to give you something more, and if they still haven’t succeeded, then they have failed and you have the absolute right to put it back on that shelf. But if Chapter Two gave you what you had been craving, then you can be certain that you’re on the right track.

Of course, there are exceptions to this idea; often with Classics, or novels recommended from a reliable source, it is already known that the whole book is good, and you need not worry about adjusting your tastebuds to it. There are also a very small number of authors who are more apt at an opening that is cliché-free, such as James Joyce. Additionally, of course, if you are required to read a specific book, you must just get on with it.

My method may not agree with you, but at least remember this: Chapter One is not nearly as important as some may have you believe; it is a minefield of phrasal structures that have been thrown around for years, and sentences that begin to blur the lines between one author and the next, regardless of genre. Aim for the middle, the heart of the book, for, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “The heart of a fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of a wise man is in his heart.”

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