There are lots of ways to pick your next read: booklists, databases like NoveList, reviews, conversations with friends, staff picks or asking a librarian. Choosing what to read is a big commitment. That book will be my bus partner, my pastime and a destination for wandering thoughts. I want to make the perfect choice. Put simply, I’m really picky.
I prefer to base my selection on the book alone by browsing while I shelve. To show you what I mean, I’ll walk you through a recent browsing/shelving excursion in the New Non Fiction section, and my choice between two books: Tresspass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine or The Devil, the Lovers, and Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach.
1. First, a book has to make an impression with a catchy title, fascinating subject or gorgeous cover. Both examples passed this first step. Trespass was immediately arresting with its taboo-sounding title that references religion and its intricate woodcut-style jacket illustration of animals and a shaman-like woman overlooking a city (by artist Cathie Bleck). The Devil, The Lovers, and Me caught my attention with its bright yellow cover overlayed with Tarot cards and paisley and its blend of memoir with the mysterious and occult.
2. While I may scan review blurbs on the cover of the book for familiar authors’ names, I don’t rely on them. No publisher would excerpt a bad review right on the book, and the quips usually abound with the same seven adjectives. I skip the jacket description, too, because I like to discover the plot as it unfolds.
Instead, I look to the table of contents to glean subject matter and the author’s creativity. Both books in question use interesting thematic structures. Irvine’s chapter titles reference archaeological terms, so the actual content remains veiled, but the metaphorical frame is alluring. Auerbach entitles each chapter after a Tarot figure, so her book also boasts an intriguing extra dimension.
3. So far, both books are tied. For the final test, I read the first sentence, page or chapter. Of all the aspects that make a good book, I value writing style most. If the language is vivid, poetic and original, I’ll probably read it. Here’s what Trespass offers in its prologue:
“My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones. There are two reasons I came here: my father’s death, and the lion man who prowled my dreams. Perhaps it was coincidence, but a man—half wild, ravenous beyond words—slid from the dream world into the mud of the waking one the same year my father left this world for another.”
Personification of the land? Bones? Feral dream men? I’m sold.
The Devil, the Lovers, and Me, didn’t stand up quite as well:
“Cement lions. I’m a Leo. It’s a sign! . . . Apartment #9. Nine is my favorite number! I push the button, and she buzzes me in a second later without asking my name. Of course. She’s clairvoyant. Or the intercom is broken. What if the intercom is broken? What if she lets anybody in? What if the man on the street comes in after me? Calm down. There are lions. There’s the #9.”
While it introduces a similar mysticism, the writing is much more casual, which can make for compelling tension, but exclamation points make me skeptical.
In the end, I checked out both books. One chapter into The Devil, the Lovers, and Me, however, I returned the book because the premise wasn’t enough to hold my attention over the less captivating writing. I’m still reading Trespass, though–and enjoying it.