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I discovered the last couple of books I’ve read quite by accident. More accurately, I discovered them the way that I once did—before I read so many books reviews and had such a long list of items on request from the library. I browsed. Browsing for fiction can be a daunting task, and I fully understand how people can be thoroughly overwhelmed at the prospect of finding something they will enjoy. Books are arranged by author, after all, not their characteristics. Readers’ Advisory guru Nancy Pearl has even suggested a pie chart method labeling books, so that potential readers could see the major appeal factors associated with each book. For example, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be a book for people who love and appreciate poetic, lush language. Its pie chart might be 70% language, 20% setting, and 10% character. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen would be for those who want to immerse themselves in the inner worlds of conflicted and complex characters.
Without the pie charts, I rely a lot on book covers. The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover is completely wrong. You actually can and do judge books by their covers constantly—for better or worse. This past summer, I had the opportunity to meet author Rainbow Rowell, author of the lovely romantic comedy Attachments. It was fascinating to me to hear about the process of selecting cover art for particular books. It was very important to Rowell that the cover art not be a photograph of a woman. In particular, she wanted to avoid photographs of parts of women—half faces, legs, hair. It’s strange, but once we had this conversation I saw the covers to which she was referring EVERYWHERE, particularly on books marketed to young women. Rowell fought to keep her cover photograph free, and she probably gained a broader audience in doing so.
Other clues to the content of a book are the blurbs on the front and/or back covers. I understand that blurbs are all part of the marketing of a book and are painstakingly chosen and negotiated. While these brief sentences are not the sole reason I select a book, they often seal the deal. As an assignment in a young adult literature course, I had to read a graphic novel. I’d never read a graphic novel before, but when I saw that Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi had blurbs by Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Steinem, I understood that I had found the graphic novel for me. (Persepolis actually became one of my all-time favorite books that I suggest to almost everyone.) Blurbs by Jonathan Franzen appeared on two books I’ve read in the past few months, too—The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg and Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple—both quirky, darkly humorous, melancholy, and character-driven novels that were perfect matches for me.
How did you find the last book you read? If you’re ever at a loss for what to read or simply want to discover some new authors and titles, try our personalized readers’ advisory service Your Next Great Read. Fill out a survey about your reading tastes and preferences, and in 7-10 business days, the Readers’ Library staff will send you a reading guide with suggested authors and titles you might enjoy. In the meantime, enjoy those blissful discoveries.