Picking which book you’re going to read next is a tricky business. I don’t know anyone with a 100% success rate. Even if you know exactly what you like, what you’re in the mood for, what gets your motor running, now and then you’re bound to fall victim to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and if you can recognise the mistake you’re about to make, you might just be able to squeeze your way around it. Here are the top five mistakes you make when picking your next read (and how to avoid them!).
1) Picking A Best-Seller
It’s human nature to find yourself swayed by the “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER” text you see emblazoned across a cover in an airport bookstore. It’s the power of social proof: when you know that a whole bunch of other people really loved something, your brain tricks you into thinking that you’ll love it too. That’s why publishers assign so much weight to best-seller rankings, and exactly why you shouldn’t! Just because a book sold a bunch a copies in really short period of time, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your money and attention.
How to avoid this mistake? Well, firstly, you should check out my list of best-sellers to avoid 😉 Secondly, make a rule for yourself that you’ll check out the blurb and look up the author before you think about where it ranked. Hopefully, that should be enough to give your brain a healthy dose of skepticism that will steer you in the right direction.
2) Picking A Book Recommended By A Friend
I fell victim to this mistake myself, just this week! I read and reviewed The Golden Bowl; of course, it was on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, so I was going to read it regardless, but I’d really hyped it up in my mind because a dear friend highly recommended it. Of course, it turned out to be an absolute stinker (in fact, I’d go as far as to say it was my least favourite of all the books I’ve read so far).
See, friends aren’t always the best gauge of what you’ll love when it comes to books. More often than not, you’ll find that they recommend books that they like, without much consideration as to what you’ll enjoy.
Sometimes, you can’t avoid this one at all. It might be a book that they’ve actually written, or one that’s moved them at a troubled time in their lives, and your obligation as a friend has to override your personal enjoyment of the book – fair enough. But otherwise, thank your friend politely, and tell them you’ll get to it someday; meanwhile, focus on book recommendations from people that you know share your tastes. That’s not always someone you know. It might be a book blogger (ahem!), or someone else that has tastes that align really closely with your own preferences. Either way, it’s a much better litmus test than what your coffee buddy recently read for their book club.
3) Picking Award Winners
Sure, literary awards can tell you a lot about the artistic merit of a book. I mean, a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer has a certain cachet, after all! But I’m going to say the thing that no one’s supposed to say: just because a book is “good” doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it.
I don’t know why we’re so afraid to admit this! Sometimes, a bunch of really smart people say a book is good, and we just don’t agree with them. Sometimes, an award winner just isn’t worth our time. That’s okay!
To avoid this mistake when picking your next read, try looking instead at books that have won awards for your preferred genre – there are sci-fi awards, and fantasy awards, and romance awards, and awards for just about every other genre you can imagine. That’s a much better indication of whether you’ll enjoy a book than a generic literary prize. Also maybe try looking for awards offered in formats that you know work for you (short stories, experimental fiction, etc.). You could also try looking at authors that have won multiple awards across their body of work. Better yet, you can chuck the nominee lists in the bin altogether, and just go with your instincts!
4) Picking Classics (Just Because They’re Classics)
I know, it’s kind of ironic that I’m calling this out as a mistake, given that I’ve created a whole blog project around reviewing the classics… however, I would argue that this makes me uniquely qualified to comment on this particular mistake you make when picking your next read. There are plenty of books that I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins purely because I “should”, and I can tell you right now that it is a huge mistake to choose a book on that basis alone.
Much like winning an award, standing the test of time is no guarantee that a book is going to be one that you’ll enjoy, or even one that’s worth your time and money. I think it’s great to read the classics and everyone should give it a go, but try looking for one that will engage you! Look at the blurbs and reviews online, keep an eye out for ones that sound similar to contemporary reads that you’ve enjoyed, and maybe look out for characters, plots and time periods that interest you.
5) Picking A Book Because You Liked The Movie
At the risk of stating the obvious, I gotta say it: films and books are completely different formats. How you experience a story changes dramatically between the page and the screen, even if the plot and the characters are exactly the same. I know that the generally-accepted wisdom says to read the book before you see the movie, but sometimes it happens the other way around; surely it makes sense to go back and read the book anyway, right? Wrong!
Take, for instance, my own feelings about The Hunger Games. I quite enjoyed the films, but I felt kind of “meh” about the original book. This comes down to the narration, of all things. See, the Hunger Games books were narrated in the first person, with all the “oh, who do I love? woe is me!” internal monologue of the teenage girl protagonist. The movies, however, by their very nature, removed that element from the story, making it much more enjoyable and engaging for me.
The trick here is simply to reject all the pressure to “read the book” – you should free to enjoy the movie or television adaptation for what it is, safe in the knowledge that the book might just fall short of the high standard that’s been set. And I know this isn’t a popular opinion about booklovers, but sometimes the movie adaptations don’t suck!
November 9, 2018 at 11:52 AM
Great advice about how to pick a classic you’ll enjoy. I’ll have to take that! Lol
November 10, 2018 at 8:12 AM
Hahahahaha happy to help, Nina 😉
November 9, 2018 at 2:14 PM
Interesting post. I must admit that I am careful about what I read so I do not run into this one sue too often. Nevertheless sometimes a book just does not click. I think that it is important not to be afraid to stop reading a book.
November 10, 2018 at 8:12 AM
Hahahaha half your luck, Brian! And you’re spot on re: not being afraid to stop reading, I think a lot of people fall into that trap. I certainly had no problem abandoning a book before I started this project – if it wasn’t grabbing me for any reason at all, over the shoulder it went 😉
November 17, 2018 at 8:07 AM
Thank gosh I completely agree with you and don’t make these mistakes.
We all know how I feel about the book to movie concept. It is rare when the movie is just as good or even better (although it happens). I can really never watch the movie first and then read the book. I do love what HP did for the world, though.
I also won’t write too much blasphemy on your post or blog about classics, but I agree: they can be a snooze. Don’t get me wrong, I love a few of them (Around the World in 80 Days, The Picture of Dorian Grey, To Kill A Mockingbird, Dracula) and they are what we learn from. But, I think many people pick them up expecting sheer magic and are disappointed with the results. Charles Dickens comes to mind… Classics give readers a lot, but entertainment isn’t always number one.
November 18, 2018 at 10:00 AM
Oooh, I’ll be writing more about book to movie adaptations next year, so more coming on that! 😉 Re: the classics, I think people forget that, wherever we shelve them, classics are still just BOOKS and you’ll enjoy them/be entertained by them or not on the same basis (plot, character, language, etc.) that you would just about any other book, *and* there’s nothing wrong with that! (That last part is the most important)
November 20, 2018 at 10:36 PM
The award winners thing is almost a universal: award winning books, award winning movies, kit with great reviews…
I am getting the feeling that the output of these processes is so universally dreary that someone is funding the entire process to keep people buying dross.