Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Reading Alphabetically

     A few weeks ago, Ida, a customer 92 years old and still going strong, asked me to recommend a book.  She had just finished The Sense of an Ending  by Julian Barnes and wanted some more “serious” reading.  After further discussion, I recommended Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

   “Let me see it first,” she demanded.  I brought her the 544 page book.  Without even opening it she shook her head and said, “No, that won’t do.”  When I asked why she rejected it off the bat, she told me it was just too long. "I want to be sure I’ll be around to finish it,” she explained.
   That interaction got me thinking about how people choose the books they read from the myriad titles available.  Clearly Ida knew what she wanted:  serious books under 200 pages.  But what criteria do other people use? 
   I’m pretty sure many people choose books by their covers.  In fact, publishers spend millions on cover art specifically designed to attract purchasers.  Last year, for example, readers must have really liked the color blue because at least half the covers on the tables were some shade of cerulean or azure.  I also know this because a disproportionate number of customers came to the help desk and asked,  "Can you help me find a book?  It’s really popular now.  I don’t remember the author or title but I’m pretty sure the cover is blue.”  Thankfully this year readers are enjoying red and yellow covers as well.
     Some people choose books based on trusted recommendations.  A certain population will head straight for the best seller list display, confident that hundreds of other readers can’t be wrong.  If it made the New York Times list, they reason, it has to be good.   Or they want the newest Oprah selection because if Oprah picked it, it has to be good.  (In fairness, Oprah does have a terrific track record of selecting books that appeal to a wide variety of readers.)  Others rely on more intimate recommendations from friends.  I know this because they come to my desk and ask, “Can you help me?  My friend recommended a book that she liked a lot.  I don’t remember the author or title, but it has a blue cover.  Or maybe red.”
     Recently my friend Greg, an engineer, introduced me to www.BookLamp.org, a website devoted to recommending books based on the “story DNA” of books you’ve enjoyed in the past.   BookLamp originated from the Book Genome Project which “was created to identify, track, measure, and study the multitude of features that make up a book using computational tools.”    I’m skeptical of this approach because it seems so very impersonal, and as a book hand seller I believe personal interaction is key to finding one’s perfect read.  Greg disagrees with this approach, maintaining that “technology augmented reality” can yield “a safer, more pleasurable result.”  Maybe, but I’d like to see him explain that to Ida and all my other customers who want to have a nice book chat before purchasing.
     As for me, this year I have decided to take an entirely different tack in selecting my reading.  I’m throwing caution to the wind by choosing random books alphabetically by authors’ last names.  What do I mean by “random”?  Well, here’s how I’ve chosen my first four:
             A:  Jaime Attenberg,  The Middlesteins .  Someone  gave me a free copy. 
 B:  Chris Bohjalian,  Doublebind.  A customer dropped a copy on the wrong display table.  It was easier to buy it than reshelve it.
             C:  Justin Cronin,  The Passage .  I was going on a long beach vacation and needed a long book to take with me.  At 800 pages, it fit the bill; it was the fattest book on the C shelf.

             D:  Zoran Drvenkar,  Sorry .  I picked it solely for the author’s excellent name.  I ran around for an entire week talking like Boris Badenov, or maybe Natasha, cracking up only myself.  As it turned out, the book was absolutely fabulous.  (I’ll be writing about it soon.)
    Choosing books randomly in no way guarantees that I’ll like them, but really, how is that any different from any other book selection process  (including, if I’m being honest, a hand sell from me).  Venturing into the reading unknown is a welcome adventure.   Maybe I’ll discover wonderful new authors, like Drvenkar, or find that I really like a genre that I’ve avoided up until now, or perhaps I’ll be disappointed.   Browsing the shelves without recommendations is freeing and the concept of stumbling onto a new favorite is exciting.  But now that I’ve set a goal to read from A to Z, I know that I’ll keep going until the last letter.  Like Ida, I want to read through until the end.





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