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How Do You Decide What Book to Read?

A recent Book Standard article Anatomy of a Buzz: Does Getting Your Book on TV for a Few Seconds Boost Sales (If It’s on ‘Lost’)? asks whether TV advertising for books works. When a copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman appeared on an episode of Lost (season 2, episode 3 which had 22 million viewers according to Nielson), there was a sales surge. This may be a little misleading, though, as the appearance of the book was foretold in a Chicago Tribune article (and syndicated in other papers). The article had a Lost writer saying that reading The Third Policeman would be invaluable to fans seeking to unravel the island’s mystery. So, factor in the obsessive fan effect.

Still, it got me wondering, not so much about how to sell books but about what makes people decide to read one book over another. (And by “people” I mean “me” because, as we all know, it’s all about me!) I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the science fiction genre but even within that niche, how is it I decide what to read?

I’m just talking about choosing what to read not necessarily what to buy. Given my backlog of books (Hello, my name is John and I’m a biblioholic.) it’s a pretty good bet that I already own something I want to read. So, what makes me pick one book over another from my abnormally large pile of biblio goodness? Setting aside book suggestion sites for a moment, how do I pick?

Several things might influence my decision:


Having a book recommended by someone I know is always a good method – that is, if the person has similar reading tastes as I do or is otherwise a good indicator of what I’d like. Years ago we tried a group reading project with Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape. Can’t say I liked it but then again I didn’t pick it as the group read. [Looks at Scott] To be fair, it was a book I already owned, so I thought I would like it. JP seems to be good at picking books I like even though our tastes diverge somewhat.

Award wins and/or good reviews

Public acclaim is a way a book gets my attention whether through award wins, award nomination or reviews. My luck with award winning books is hit or miss, so maybe my tastes are a bit different than the mass populace, or at least the voting populace. (Oddly, I find that comforting.) Reviews are a tricky thing. Like recommendations, it helps to find a reviewer who shares similar tastes. Free review sites like Amazon are easily cluttered with phony, love-fest reviews but don’t get me started.

Looking for material from specific author

Sometimes I’m looking to try a new writer and sometimes I’m a-jonesin’ for a particular one. Especially after a bad read, I always wonder why more writers can’t be like, say, Theodore Sturgeon, an author from whom I have yet to read anything bad. It’s the writing style that makes him stand out above others. Robert Silverberg is another standout in the area of storytelling.

Looking for material from a specific era

Science fiction of a particular era is sometimes my goal. Every now and then I get a hankerin’ (did I just say “hankerin'”?) for some Golden Age science fiction. It has a flavor that is just not present in most sf today.

Pressure to continue/avoid a series

With so many sf books being part of a series, it’s no wonder that book series might affect my decision. If a book is a part 1 of a series it’s a bigger commitment I have to make. I can’t go too long between reading successive installments without the overall story losing some of its impact. This year I read two books in a series by Leo Frankowski only two months apart because if I waited any longer, I thought I might forget something of the first book. It helps if the author recaps the events, but not all do. (Here’s where my own reviews come in very handy.) So, yes, being part of a series impacts my decision. Silly, I know, but there it is.

Book length

File another one under “afraid of commitment”. Some books are just too daunting. I like them; they sound interesting – but do I have the time in my life right now to devote to a 1,000 page quest fantasy? Sometimes I do. And sometimes I pick a book because it’s short and life is soon to be too busy to spend much time reading. I picked Sturgeon’s Some of Your Blood for that reason. (Plus it’s Theodore Sturgeon! A two-fer bonus!) When I was doing the short-story-a-day thing last year, I would sneak in a short story whenever there were some otherwise idle moments in life. Size does matter. (Ahem.)

In the mood for subgenre

Gotta have it! Sometimes I’m just in the mood for space opera or military sf or literary sf or adventure or sf mystery or…


School book assignments were always lame. It wasn’t so much the material as it was that I had to read it. What could have been fun became a chore. I read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in high school and didn’t like it very much. Several years ago I re-read of my own free will and loved it. Earlier this year, we had a reading project that essentially amounted to a reading assignment. This also dictated what I read next, but only a little as I mixed in other books.

A great opening scene

Sometimes a book gets chosen because you just pick it up randomly and discover a great opening scene and a story that draws you in. Leaping to the Stars by David Gerrold and Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest come to mind.

An upcoming adaptation

It is generally accepted that films adapted from books are usually of lesser quality that the source material. So whenever I hear that a book is being made into a movie, I feel an uncontrollable desire to read the book before the movie hits the screens lest the book be ruined by a bad adaptation. If I’ve already read the book then there’s no problem, otherwise the book moves up on my reading list. One current book that falls in this category: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick.

Whew! I’m glad I sorted all that out.

Now excuse me while I go find something to read.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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