Jul 22 2009 2:58pm

What do you hope for in a book?

I talk a lot about re-reading here, but I was just thinking about the wonderful feeling of holding a new book in your hand and not knowing what it might be. It might be awfully disappointing, of course, which a re-read usually isn’t, but it also holds infinite promise. A new book by a favourite author delights me so much that sometimes I’ll keep the book unread for a little while just to enjoy the feeling of having all of it ahead of me. This goes double if it’s an entirely new book, a standalone book or the beginning of a series, rather than the latest installment of an ongoing series. Unstarted, it’s an uncharted voyage of discovery stretching out before me. There’s something about a new book that smells of promise.

I’m in Cardiff, visiting family. I just went to Waterstones and picked up some British books that I’d otherwise have to buy irritatingly online. I like buying books in a bookshop. I know this is old fashioned of me, but I like the experience of walking into a bookshop and finding the book on the shelf and holding it in my hand and then paying for it and then walking out of the shop with it. It’s a physical experience. (I will forgo this on occasion for the convenience of having the book right now.) This is also one of the reasons why I’m not an enthusiastic consumer of e-books—I like bookshops, I like physical books. The books I bought and have gloatingly in front of me are not available in Montreal.

The first is Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built, a memoir about reading from the author of The Backroom Boys, recommended to me by a lot of people in the comment thread to my review of that book here. I’m hoping that this will be as good as The Backroom Boys but in a different kind of way. The salesguy in Waterstones said “How can you go wrong with a book about reading and loving books?” I’m hoping it will talk about books I also loved.

The second is Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions, winner of the BSFA Award for best science fiction book published in Britain in 2008. I haven’t read it, I have no idea what it’s about, except that it’s science fiction and by Ken MacLeod. I’ve enjoyed all MacLeod’s books so far. They tend to have a Scottish flavour but to range quite widely within SF, from the near-future to the stars, from political day-after-tomorrow to space opera, from first contact to UFOs. This could be anything, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be good. Once I start reading, once I crack the first word, I’ll be limited to whatever it actually is. Until then, I have a new Ken MacLeod book!

The third is Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca. This is a reprint. I love Heyer’s Regencies, but haven’t much enjoyed her historical novels or mysteries. But at Fourth Street, Sarah Monette told me that only one of her mysteries was good, Envious Casca, but good luck finding it. Well, I found it. This one I’m looking at with some trepidation. Heyer was really really good at a very narrow range of things, and when she stepped outside that range results could be regrettable. I do trust Sarah’s taste to have a reasonable amount of congruence with mine, but I’m hesitating. It could be awful. Or it could be really good. Until I pick it up and start reading it, it remains in a Schrödinger state.

(The fourth thing I bought doesn’t really count, as it was a book that I already own, and my husband owns his own copy, too. I bought it because I couldn’t resist getting a new shiny attractive copy of it when I saw it, to replace my old tatty copy. It’s John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, in a beautiful Gollancz Masterworks edition. This is a book I’ve already read many times and love. It’s a classic fantasy novel, no doubt I’ll be doing a post about it here in the fullness of time. I was very pleased to have a chance to snag a such a nice edition.)

So with the Spufford, I’m hoping to be surprised and delighted, and I’m really just keeping it to prolong the anticipation while I finish the two books I’m reading at the moment. With the MacLeod, I’m not so much hoping it’s any one particular thing as enjoying keeping my options open as to which kind of particular thing it is. And with the Heyer, I’m hoping it really is good and delaying finding out.

So they’re sitting there in a little pile singing their siren songs of new book possibilities, and I’m keeping them unopened and full of possibility for the time being.

Does anyone else do this?

rick gregory
1. rickg

I like the new book by a favorite author feeling too. It's the possibility that I'm going to be transported into a different world, one that's new and compelling and wondrous. When someone writes well, it's a shared dream and a feeling unlike movies or any other medium. I get to go elsewhere and all I have to do is open the cover.
2. GoblinRevolution
Why MacLeod's The Night Sessions isn't available in Canada I cannot say. It is strange that we get far more British publications than those poor buggers south of our border but The Night Sesssions is for sale there, but not here.

But on with the recommendation. The Night Sessions is brilliant (as are all of his books). It details the police investigation of a murder in a world where the War on Terror mutated into "The God Wars". Religion is an official 'non-person'. The victim, of course, is a priest.

To say more than that would be to give away spoilers. Read it soon. You will not be disappointed.
3. DemetriosX
Actually, I am psychologically incapable of doing this. Once I have my hands on a book, I must read it. It is a compulsion. Like E.C. "Oscar" Gordon, I have to read before I can sleep. The most I can do is rank the unread books I have for a reading order, but I have never put the one I want to read most at the bottom of the pile.

That said, I fully understand your attitude toward unread books, I just lack the willpower to avoid diving in and swallowing them whole. But the highest praise I have for a book is wishing that I could forget I ever read so that I could have the experience of reading it for the first time all over again.
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
Strange coincidence-- I am currently reading (for the first time) a Gollancz Masterworks edition of The Dragon Waiting. I hope you do post about this book, because I would love to hear what you have to say about it.

But anyway, yes, I'm also one of those folks who gets excited about the unbounded possibilities of unopened books.
Amy Young
5. ceara
I do this, though sometimes it's sheer pressure of quantity of acquisition that dictates the waiting, rather than any actual sense of anticipation. I do postpone some on purpose, though - in fact, I'll often hold books by some authors that consistently deliver books that hit certain book-love categories for me until I'm in the mood in which they would best fit, much as I do with re-reading.
Kurt Lorey
6. Shimrod
You couldn't have expressed it better.
7. JWezy
I definitely do this. I have a stack awaiting me, and I often decide what to read next based on what I just finished (I like to change gears, especially after something I enjoyed, so history will follow fantasy, for example). But I will also intentionally delay a book I am anticipating, both to heighten the enjoyment and (sometimes) to wait for a time when I can read it without interruption.

Another thing...

One thing I find that "kills the cat" is the publisher's habit of giving away important information in the cover or liner notes. I realize that they have to make the sale, but there are times when they give away too much, and I wish I could be reading the book without foreknowledge, experiencing the book as the author wrote it.

Then there are those few instances where the publisher gets it utterly wrong. I have a Gordon R. Dickson novel I picked up second-hand, and I noticed after finishing the book that the summary on the back cover is completely wrong, even to the point of misidentifying the protagonist! The blurb spoke about a great decision that faced a character, but chose the name of a relatively minor character, one who gets only a dozen pages or so. Fortunately, this was also a cover that revealed relatively little of the plot, so it is not even completely clear whether they chose the wrong passage to summarize, or whether they simply got the name wrong.
8. fanghorn For Rest
i do it too. i currently have around a dozen books perched on my book shelf that i'm dying to read. Most of the books are by unfamiliar authors that have been recommended. Most of the books have been acquired from the bookstore. Every time i finish my current reading, i approach the book shelf for a new fix. i rework the queue in my mind and agonize over which book to pick next. Strangely, I'd have it no other way.
9. OtterB
I do this too - wait to read something. I have to be careful about it, though, as intriguing-but-unread books tend to disappear into my daughter's room. Or under piles of Stuff. And then I sometimes forget they are there. Although that sometimes makes for enjoyable rediscoveries later, it can also lead to the irritating situation of buying the same book twice without yet having read it once.

For me I know there's an element of postponing the chance of disappointment. I do this more than I used to, I think because I'm easier to disappoint than I used to be. It used to be that if it had words in English making up comprehensible sentences, I was okay with it, though I might not love it. Now, I think I'm looking primarily to find some characters I'll enjoy spending time with. A new book is like a party where I know nobody (a situation I, as an introvert, deeply dislike). I might immediately feel the "click" of connection with these new people and be really glad I came, but I might also find them dull or boorish or well-intentioned but just not my type, and want to slip quietly out the back door when nobody is looking.
10. Susan Loyal
The last time I had this experience was with a novel titled Lifelode, by Jo Walton. It's a limited edition from NESFA, and I'd missed any mention of the book when it came out. The cover was appealing, the author is one I trust, and the flap description sounded curiously like the book had been written exactly to my interests--so I held onto it for a few days, fearing that it wouldn't be as perfect as I wanted it to be. But it was.

I've been fascinated by the Paston family since I was assigned a collection of their letters in a seminar on Piers Plowman about thirty years ago. One of my "nerd-areas" is the administration of manor houses. And Rumor Godden's China Court is one of my favorite books. As these were the stated influences on Lifelode, you'd expect me to be either the perfect audience or the reader-from-hell for this one.

You nailed it, Jo. Time in the book moves exactly the way I've always imagined time must have felt in the late Middle Ages, with agrarian cyclical time passing like sunlight through honey in the countryside but with everyone knowing that time in the city (here "in the East") moves faster. I love the relationships between the children and the adults. I love the way the novel reads like a fantasy and is actually science fiction. Thank you. Thank you so much.
11. meaghen
There is nothing better than a good book you haven't read yet. That is something my dad always says and he's the one who got me into reading fantasy and science fiction. It was pretty much a guarantee that any book he recommended was going to be a good read. I still haven't gotten through all the books in his collection. I will someday though.
12. JackiAnne
Oh, my, do I ever! Right now, I have no less than a dozen books currently in that holding pattern (with a thirteenth to come as soon as it's available for purchase). I had seven books waiting when I got three more that went to the bottom of the stack, and then two more that immediately went to the front (just had to read those first). This doesn't count the seven books that are waiting on my re-read list plus whatever I might buy at this weekend's book sale.
David Goldfarb
13. David_Goldfarb
Jwezy@7: I feel the same way...and I realized a little while ago that I didn't have to read the cover copy. I mean, yes, it's text, you read text. With a little effort, I can manage to avoid reading it until after I've read the book. Obviously, that only works for books I already know I want to read, rather than new stuff, but I've already got a large backlog.
14. ClairedeT
I totally do this too! In fact I'll also assign new books as a little reward to myself for getting something done, and then postpone the reading even longer just to have them on the shelf.

I'm currently waiting for the last Katharine Kerr, and am in a lather of anticipation having read this since my early teens. It comes out on my birthday which is even better. And yet... I'll only be able to read it for the first time once. So how long will I wait? (On a plus point my local independent bookshop often gets them in a few days early so I can have even more joy of waiting to read the book and it's NOT EVEN OUT!)
15. mityorkie
I don't save books that I look forward to reading. The only way I can delay reading something is to not have possession of it. Once it's in my hands, books don't stand a chance... or maybe it's me that doesn't stand a chance. Anyway, tasty books get devoured quickly.
ennead ennead
16. ennead
I do! Thanks for making me feel a bit less weird.
Dru O'Higgins
17. bellman
I do it sometimes, often saving a book until I have a spare weekend day to start reading.

Years back, for the first Christmas I was going to spend away from my family, I started feeling down months in advance. One of the things I did was put aside all of the books I was excited about - new books, used books and some library books - so I could pull them out Christmas day and make it a special occasion. It helped a lot.
18. grilojoe77
I find myself putting books into a "to read" pile, usually during the summer when school's not in session, but the pile is usually there. I don't do it because I am attempting to prolong the anticipation, but because if I read too many books at once, then it takes me at lot longer to get through them all and I run the risk of running out of patience. It isn't that I am bored with the writing (usually), I just have to get through them quickly so I can move on to the next book in the pile. Lately, I've been working through the thicker books that I've been wanting to read as well as going back through some of my graphic novels, which has ended up being a real treat.

In terms of what I expect from a book when I begin it, I need to have an idea of the gist of the story, or at least the hook, so I know how to approach the book. I very rarely pick up an unknown. I get books that have been recommended to me by people whose opinion I trust. It was somewhat of a leap of faith to get read some of the books reviewed on here mainly because I'm very picky about my reading. I guess a constant expectation of the books I read is that I'm drawn into the story, that there is sufficient complexity to produce several layers of meaning and implication. Something like the 'bigger question' that the story is asking or exploring, whether that question is social or psychological or reflexive, asking questions of the medium or the story itself.

And really, I guess (now that I think about it) I look for the same kinds of layers of meaning in the films I watch as well. Sure, everyone needs some brain candy with lots of action and big explosions, however the engaging films have engaging stories that attempt to reason through the human condition, whatever that means, by asking what constitutes reality, or is there something that distinguishes us as human. I really enjoy the sci-fi that manages to present these kinds of questions in interesting ways.
Sandi Kallas
19. Sandikal
I'm going to answer the title question: What do you hope for in a book?

When I pick up a new book, I hope that it's going to make me feel something. I hope that it's going to make me think, or help me escape. I hope it's going to entertain me or educate me. I hope it's going to suck me in and drag me down a whirlpool of literary excitement. I hope it's not going to bore the heck out of me or remind me too much of anything else I've read. I hope to meet characters I love or loathe, maybe both. I hope to experience something new.

I love books.
Tim Nolan
20. Dr_Fidelius
It's the warm glow of promise from my unread pile that's helping me through my dissertation. I'm keeping back the Patrick O'Brian, the China Mieville, the Ernest Bramah, until the day it's handed in. I know if I open them I won't be able to concentrate on anything else for days.

I've missed this feeling. In the last couple of years I've limited myself to buying only a handful of books at a time and finishing them before getting more. Then the Fantasy Centre on Holloway Road had a closing down sale, and...well, I kind of fell off the wagon.

In the meantime I'm working through all those Schrodinger books I bought recently. Funny? Exciting? Sickeningly terrible? I won't know until I open the covers.
Marissa Lingen
21. Mris
I have been to the UK twice, and both times I loved the feeling of going into bookstores because it recaptured the feeling in my young childhood of *not knowing what would be there*. At home in the US, the uncertainty is more "will they have this in yet" or "will they choose to carry that or will I have to order it." But as someone who has been to the UK twice in nearly 31 years, I can have the moments of, "Ooh, what's that?" a lot more often than I can over here.

I also save books to enjoy their potential. I have Greer Gilman's first new book in ages, Cloud and Ashes, and I have a thing called Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer among the American Romantics, and I am staring at both of them like the dog trying to convince us to play laser pointer with her. I can almost taste them in my head, but not quite, not yet.
22. art thief
I have the pleasure/misfortune to work in a used bookstore. Because of this, the books in my reading queue make up the bulk of the books that I own. Looking at this good sized library of infinite promise, I'm struck by the fact that even if I read a book a week, it will still take me more than five years to read them all, and that assumes that I don't purchase anymore books. I can't wait.

Del Toro's "The Strain", Martin's "Feast For Crows", "Drood" by Dan Simmons...They're all waiting for me. Sitting there, taunting me with their potential. Rushdie's "Midnight's Children", "Perdido Street Station" by Mieville, even "The Hunger Games" by Collins. I'm dying of anticipation, waiting to get my hands on them. If only I can finish Martin's "Storm Of Swords" to get to them. The problem is, I don't want "Storm Of Swords" to end. So I sneak small peeks in the mean time. I'll pick up "The Glass Book Of the Dream Eaters" and read the first two pages. maybe three. I keep a copy of "The Book Of Fantasy", edited by Borges, on the night stand and slowly whittle away at that one before bed. I listen to a copy of Stephen King's "Cell" in my car, so I can squeeze one more book into my busy schedule...

A few years ago I was struck by the realization that there was no way that I would ever live long enough to read every book I ever wanted to read. But I will go down swinging, and looking at the stacks of books in front of me, I know it's gonna be a damn good fight.
23. Cindy Orischuk
I look for action, adventure,political intrigue. Well thought out plots and careful character development. Some romance can add to the tension in the book, but too much is a major turn off. I have read your works and quite enjoyed them. I would have to say some of my favorite authors, that blend these aspects are authors like CJ Cherryh, Paula Volskoy, Jaqueline Carey, Judith Tarr, to name a few.
If you caught a theme, yes I do prefer female authors, I find their female characters more well rounded and better written.
24. Cathal
JackiAnne @ 12:

"Holding pattern" is such an apt analogy: all the books, impatiently queuing up for attention. I find that I buy a book with the full intention of reading it soon, but then get sidetracked. Like I bought 'Foundation' (which I've never read. I know, I'm a shambles), but I was reading Graves' 'The Greek Myths' at the time... which got me re-reading 'I Claudius'. But I've promised myself that once I've finished 'Claudius the God', 'The Call of Cthulhu' (I know, I know) and a book about cycling, THEN I'll start on the Foundation series...
Tim Hayes
25. LordDarkstorm
I've been a reader for most of my life. I discovered scifi and fantasy about the age of fourteen or so, and since then I've enjoyed traveling to new worlds and being in the middle of great battles. To know how it feels to use magic in dozens of universes is something you can never get from a movie.

What do I hope for from a book? New ways of thinking or seeing, a fresh look at people and how they perceive the world around them, overall, an existence different from my own. A fresh new painted canvas in which new dreams can form. What places words can paint in the mind and emotions shared with new people we carry around in our head for weeks after their story is told.

I keep a large selection of books available to read. On a usual basis I'll have thirty or more I haven't read yet. Some from authors I know and love, some of whom I know nothing about. There are occasional books that have been somewhat disappointing, but those are few and far between.
26. ErrantKnave
I do it all the time. Sometimes it feels right to just dive into a new book, and sometimes it's just better to leave the book there a few days, knowing that it's ready and waiting for that day when I have a few hours to read. This is usually the case with new books from my favourite authors.

Of course, they tend to accumulate after a while because I acquire books faster than I can read them. The pile by my bed is getting precarious.
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
Susan Loyal: Indeed, you do sound as if you're the perfect reader for Lifelode and I'm very glad you liked it. One of the very nice things about its publication has been coming across other people who love Godden.

Everyone else: So nice to know I'm not all that weird!
28. Ross123

I've found a site that will email you when your chosen authors release a new, previously unpublished book. In this case, if you use this link it will show you upcoming books from Ken MacLeod.

Some people may find it useful perhaps.
Roland of Gilead
29. pKp
Count me among the compulsive "MUST READ NEW BOOK NOW" readers. As a kid, I used to go to the librairy when school was out, bring back five or six books, and do litterally NOTHING ELSE than reading (except when pesky parents would tell me to eat or sleep) until I had burned trough them all. Even now, when I buy a new book (either by an author I already know, or through a friend's recommendation), I usually go right home with it and read it until I'm too tired to understand the words.

I look for new worlds, new ideas. The books I love are those that creep into my daily life and colour what's going on around me. Some of those I've read more than ten times, but they still take hold and don't let go. I still go all teary-eyed every time I re-read Gaiman's Neverwhere, and Little Brother always makes me want to re-start a punk band.
Soon Lee
30. SoonLee
Allow me to be the first to coin the name, "The Walton-Schrodinger theory of unread books": the quality of a given book for the individual reader is indeterminate until the act of reading collapses the wave function.

Thanks to JWezy #7 for the idea.
Sherwood Smith
31. Sherwood
Farah Mendlesohn was talking about Lifelode at Mythcon weekend before last, and people busy taking notes.

Love both things--new book prospect, beloved old book in new form. My Small Beer edition of Privilege of the Sword is waiting for the perfect moment.
Carolyn Style
32. Louisa
Having read and reread the Heyer regencies etc. about a million times, I recently read all the Heyer mysteries for the first time- they are all available for the kindle. They aren't particularly good mysteries, but I was pathetically happy to read something new by Heyer.

My personal favorite is Death In The Stocks, only because of the wonderful Vereker siblings, who are pure Heyer at her best.

I also have an inexplicable fondness for Behold, Here's Poison. I like the hero, for reasons which I don't understand. I think it's because he belongs in a regency, not this book.

I liked Footsteps in the Dark, too, for its Gothic elements. There's a house, but instead of a lonely virgin girl, there are some witty siblings and their miscellaneous romantic partners and neighbors.

Envious Casca was not one of my favorites. I'm going to reread it, though, to figure out why Sarah Monette thought it was good.

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