Buying and reading books are deeply emotional and personal acts. Your choices of reading material are based on an intricate and truly limitless combination of marketing influences and mercurial emotions. This goes for both buying books and deciding which book to read next. Two different things, but closely related as each is influenced by a mysterious algorithm of instinct and urge, want and need, stimulus both external and internal.
Your desire to buy and read a book uncovers the dark hinterland of your soul. Your choices are often a reflection of your id. I can spend hours online or in a bookstore browsing the shelves (virtual and real). In person, I’ll first check the new releases (fiction, mostly) and then do a deep dive into the stacks, sometimes A to Z. Often I’ll have jotted down the name of an author who I’m interested in because of his/her previous work, I’ve read about them someplace, or I dig other books from the same publisher.
Case in point—while researching a blog post, I read an article about novelist Mark Helprin whose name I’ve been aware of for years, but based on the article which touted his quiet, subtle prose, I went out and picked up Winter’s Tale. I’ve yet to read it but buying the book is the first necessary step.If I’m shopping used books, then the rules change. I’ll spend a couple bucks on a book I’m unsure about, a book I’m unwilling to spend full price on. If I read it and like it, well then, I’ll go and buy more books from that writer. And at full price. Buying used books is like going to a library that charges for checking out books. A lot of times I will donate my read books to library book sales, Used Book Superstores, and other charitable organizations so the cycle of inexpensive book discovery is paid forward.
I have a queue of at least a hundred books waiting to be read. When I finish a book I jot down the title and author (I keep track of the books I read each year), and then mosey on over to my bookshelves—the ones that hold the promise of a bright new reading tomorrow—and let my subconscious take over. I allow myself to enter a fugue state of longing. It’s like picking a candy bar—so many choices. Each book has a wrapper of a colorful promise. Each title cradles a suggestion that speaks directly to my unconscious.
When I decide which book to read, it comes down to my mood at that precise moment. Sometimes it depends on the book I just finished reading. Was it a novel? Well, then maybe I want to try a book of short stories next. Or possibly a memoir. Was the last book a long slog through the precious, august mind of a revered white male Nobel Prize winner? Maybe my next book should be a short slice of pulp fiction from the 40s. Or a classic by Virginia Woolf. Or the recent YA sensation my sister recommended. But wait, here’s a book I bought five years ago with a faded spine by an author who recently died. I forgot about you my friend. But no longer. I shall give you a whirl. Yes, I have found my next book to read. Yeah, it’s that simple.
But also that complicated. Take the seemingly innocuous book-as-gift scenario. On the surface, books are the perfect gift. Who doesn’t like to get a book? And what avid reader doesn’t like to spend hours deciding which book is right for which person on her gift buying list? Oh, the peril. Oh, the potential folly. Giving books is a tricky road. What you consider the perfect book for a sister, dad, or wife can turn into a fraught gift-unwrapping experience. You know it’s good, but the look on their faces tells all. As they coyly rip the wrapping there comes either a big grin that says Perfect or a shiver of incomprehension and disappointment before the cursory, Oh you shouldn’t have, which really means you’ve made a grave miscalculation.
But what of book clubs? Book clubs exist so you don’t have to make a choice. As my father-in-law pointed out over a recent lunch, with book clubs “the book finds you.” Very true. The question of which book to buy next becomes obsolete and thus removes the variable of emotion or decision. Let Oprah decide for you. Or that book club on the Today show, or on GoodReads, or your old-school in-person book club.
If you belong to the Quality Paperback Book Club or Doubleday Book Club, you can sit back and let each month’s featured selection get sent to your door. Lots of publishers have book club-type deals. For example, for a hundred bucks McSweeney’s will send you every book they release over the next year as part of their Book Release Club. Decision solved. Questions all gone. Just check your mailbox and there’s your new book.
I turned to the Internets and did an impromptu survey: What determines the books you read? Also, what goes into your decision to buy a book? Here are the answers, many covering both questions:
- Choosing what book to read verifies a momentary feeling or mood. I read seasonally—meaning, I’ll read a book which takes place over the Fourth of July at that time of year.
- Friend’s recommendations.
- Books by authors I love.
- I buy books based on recommendations on NPR.
- Depends on my mood.
- To buy: The balance in my bank account, and my upcoming availability for reading.
- Book reviews in blogs, The Week, Goodreads, in papers.
- I go to library where they have a list of recommended books. Also, I read a book a month for my book club and my son gives me really good books.
- Books by my friends.
- I don’t often buy books but I love to find books in the library or in the book swap at work. We also have hundreds of books at home! I often take the recommendations of friends, family, and my kids.
- I buy very few books these days. Mostly I am rereading old favorites. Also, depends on the stage in my life. At one stage in my life, I bought many self-improvement books. At another stage, I became interested in nature. I bought many bird books, books about wild flowers, mushrooms, trees, handbooks for identification.
- Definitely recommendations, but only from very, very few sources…and increasingly writer interviews seem to be playing a bigger role.
- Author posts on Facebook and Twitter (but not so much the posts trying to sell their book).
- The cover (although not the cover blurbs).
- Usually, it’s the book jacket blurb that pulls me in — or not.
- Book covers—sometimes.
- I always think about buying a book if it has a beautiful cover and is about something in which I am interested.
- The editor, for story collections.
- If a book wins a certain award, I may buy it.
- Word of mouth. Or when my Dad says he’s despondent because there won’t be another volume because the author’s died.
- References in other books and media.
- Amazon recommendations.
- Book descriptions.
- I actually don’t read enough. I mostly read articles, news, and short stories. As a result of my lack of reading, when I pick up novels and larger books, I tend to go for things that are strange and unorthodox.
- Depends on my mood.
Okay, you get the idea. Subjective, personal, yet often universal. What about you? Where do you fit into the book buying and reading scenario?