Anyone can apply logic, taste, and methodical research to the problem of selecting which limited subset of the vast number of books available one is to read. Conversely, one can half-ass one’s way through Mt. Tsundoku using methods of dubious reliability. Don’t believe me? Here are five methods I have used, each more ludicrous than the one before.
One method that might seem justifiable is snapping up books based on purely on the publisher. Indeed, I am certain that were I to poll publishers, they would be unanimous in their hearty agreement that purchasing a book because it was from a specific publisher is an excellent idea. However, the flaw in this approach is that it is a rare publisher that does not offer a wide range of books. Even a publisher thought to focus on shoot-em-ups wrapped in lurid, eye-melting covers may publish the odd Joanna Russ and Barry Malzberg work. Knowing the general sort of book a publisher publishes does not necessarily tell you anything about a specific book. A closer look is mandated.
Nevertheless, I picked up James White’s Monsters and Medics purely because it was published by Del Rey Books. I’d forgotten having read a White earlier and didn’t know what to expect. I did know I’d enjoyed previous books published by Del Rey, so I took a chance on the White. It paid off! Monsters and Medics is still one of my favourite collections.
If there’s one saying that is drummed into readers’ heads, it is never judge a book by its cover. Covers serve to entice readers, but they do not necessarily reflect the content of the book. One would have to be misguided indeed to base one’s expectations on covers that may have nothing at all to do with the content of the book.
Nevertheless! Any publisher that cared to slap a John Berkey cover on a book vastly increased the odds of me plunking down my buck seventy-five. This worked out incredibly well for me. I remember fondly such works as Fred Pohl’s The Gold at the Starbow’s End, C. J. Cherryh’s Hunter of Worlds, and Jerry Pournelle’s 2020 Vision, which share little beyond their cover artist. In fact, the Berkey method was so successful I immediately picked up Pohl’s Gateway purely because the Berkey cover caught my eye, despite the very significant handicap that the cover was actually by Boris Vallejo.
My grandmother confused Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and on discovering her error, consigned What’s Bred in the Bone unread to the guest room bedside table. Canadian literature generally isn’t my jam, but as soon as I saw the Davies, I had to read it because I was feeling antisocial and it was within reach. Obtaining any other book would have potentially involved talking to people. This selection paid off handsomely. As a result, I have an extensive collection of well-read Davies books.
Another excellent way to land in my book basket was by boldly embracing alphabetical proximity to another author I liked. Harry Harrison was next to Robert A. Heinlein, so I gave his books a try. Clifford D. Simak was near Robert Silverberg, so onto the to-buy list went City. Obviously, if I liked Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, it followed that I might like McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. In retrospect, this seems less like logic than a reluctance to turn my head slightly, but it worked.
In fact, I have been known to try books purely because they were in my direct line of sight at the moment I had an urge to read something. A prominent example of this is Diana Rowland’s Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues, whose eye-catching cover was displayed at eye level in Waterloo Public Library. Conveniently for me, Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues and its tale of a woman trying to better herself despite substance abuse issues and the small matter of being dead functioned as a standalone. It even enticed me to read more books by the same author.
No doubt you have your own dubious and yet functional methods for selecting which book to read next. Feel free to mention them in the comments below.
Originally published September 2021.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.