How to choose a new favorite book at the bookstore

A foolproof plan

Very, very few people can be trusted to recommend a book you will actually like. The way we interact with books is so personal. Like all art, we bring to a book all of our own garbage: our traumas and fears, our joys and heartaches. Sometimes we know what we like, but sometimes we are wrong. Earlier today, a friend of mine was describing a book they are reading, and I knew immediately what kind of book it was to me: it was the dreaded “book I will talk shit about for six years before reading and falling in love with.” We only know ourselves so well.

This is a big week for me. I am busy. I have an uncooperative story being a problem child. My agent and I are doing some shit that’s scary. So I need to distract myself. A good way to distract yourself is to go to the bookstore. These are my tips for buying a book you don’t know at the bookstore. This aren’t tips for books you’ve read a New Yorker review of, or books that your friend told you you might like. This is a tip for picking up books at random and deciding whether you like them. It is a tip for a used bookstore or a sprawling space like Powell’s or a library!

Here is how I choose a book:

  1. Ignore the title/cover/blurbs

    These cannot be trusted. They are chosen by marketers and publishers. They are made to make you want the book. Blurbs are the most useless of all. These are just nice things people who like the author have said. While that may be useful to some, I ignore.

  2. Ignore the jacket copy

    Jacket copy is often boring. It reveals too much of the plot and isn’t actually useful. Jacket copy can be used for dismissing books for themes/topics/genres you don’t like, but it shouldn’t be used to decide to buy a book. I don’t know if authors write the jacket copy themselves, but it doesn’t tell you much.

  3. If your store has recommended tags pay attention to them

    One of my favorite aspects of a good local bookstore are the little tags written by bookseller. I personally trust booksellers with all of my spare time, so these tags are good for me. They give me a reason to love it and function kind of like a friend recommending a novel. BUT THERE IS A TRICK TO THESE. Just like how you can’t trust every friend, you cannot trust every bookseller. You have to look at the tags for books you have read, and whichever bookseller is recommending books you love, you follow their tags right up to the cash register. (This can also be done the other way. If a seller is recommending books you hate, ignore them)

  4. The first paragraph

    The best way to judge a book is by its actual writing. What I do in a store is I flip all the way to the first page of actual writing and I start there. This is (theoretically) the writer’s best work. This is where they have spent the most time trying to create an on-ramp for you, the reader, to enter into the world they have created. If you don’t like the first paragraph of a book at all, you probably won’t like the book. But…

  5. Flip open the book to the middle

    The first paragraph of a book can also be overwrought. The author has spent so much time with it that it might not be an accurate reflection of the rest of the book. It may be much better than the book, or much more florid. I recommend flipping the book open in the FRONT HALF (save yourself from spoilers) and trying on a couple of paragraphs in the middle of the page. Is it catching you? Do you want to know what’s happening? Great!

  6. If you don’t like it in the store, you won’t like it right now.

    Sometimes I buy a book in the store that I don’t like that much. Sometimes my friend has written a book and I want to support them, or I feel like I need to read something to keep up with the zeitgeist or whatever. This never works. You can read a book you hate, but you will sludge through it, and then not read at all. The best thing to do with these books is set them in a stack of unread books and use the same flipping method to determine when you are ready for them.

  7. Buy local and use your bookseller

    There is no greater place to get recommendations than by going to a local bookstore consistently. Suddenly, the booksellers will have recommendations just for you. Especially if you’re buying a book they like or love.

That’s it! That’s how you buy a book. Or, if you are me, how you buy 4 books in every single bookstore you have ever walked into!

Happy Tuesday my dreamy babies!