Tuesday, September 20, 2011

This is Not the Book I Bought

Something that happens to me often is that I'll look at a book in a shop, or read about a book online and I'll think, "Hey, this looks interesting." I'll read the cover copy or a review or a publisher's facebook post and get a certain idea of what the book is going to be, how I think it's written and what the tone will be and I'll think, "Yeah, this looks like something I'd enjoy." You know, the regular process of buying a book.

So then I take my new book home and open it to the first page and read the first chapter or so and I realize that the book in my hand is not the book I was imagining in the shop. I'm reading a different book than the one I thought I was buying. For this reason, the first chapter or so of every book I read is a sort of negotiation between me and the author, a breaking-in period of sorts.

Sometimes the book I'm reading is amazing and so much better than whatever I'd imagined I'd be reading, and that's a cool experience. I love it when a writer's imagination outstrips my own. Sometimes the book I'm reading is nowhere as cool as the book I thought I'd purchased, and of course that sucks. Usually I'll finish reading those books anyway and grumble about them to Mighty Reader and anyone else who'll listen to me.

Possibly what I'm getting at is the idea that cover copy and reviews of books don't really give a good picture of what the actual reading experience will be like. Which means, maybe, that I'd do just as well picking up books randomly from the bookstore shelves. I don't know; I'm much better at observing phenomena than I am at drawing conclusions. That's why I make art, not politics or anything practical.

Anyway, I wonder if I'm alone in this habit? Does anyone else sort of build a strong mental picture of what the book they're about to read is about, only to find that picture proved wrong by the actual book? Or do you pretty much know what you're getting into and I'm just babbling here?


  1. I've been caught by the bait & switch between jacket copy and reviews vs. actual content before. For me the disconnect usually comes about in the middle or end of the book, though, not in chapter 1.

  2. I don't know if it's bait & switch so much as the impossibility of accurately describing a piece of written fiction. And do we allow our desire to read a certain type of book to color our expectations, possibly despite what we've just read on the cover?

    I'm currently reading Anna Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, whose central character is a prickly and self-involved mother/grandmother in Moscow during the 80s. I was expecting the book to be more barbed and mean-spirited than it is (to which I was looking forward); it's actually sort of sweet and ironical, which is fine and it's funny as promised, but it's not what I thought it would be based on what I've read of it.

    Also, there are classics like Moby-Dick. We're told we should read it because it's important and deep, but what the cover copy should really say it that it's a rollicking and sprawling adventure full of philosophy and, mostly, a lot of fun. Nobody points out that "classics" are fun to read, which is a deceptive practice. Like we're not allowed to enjoy enduring literature or something. The Iliad is a war story with lots of action, not a history book, etc. Rambling now.

  3. And by "Anna Bronsky" I of course mean Alina Bronsky.

  4. Well, I usually take the time to read at least the first page or two before plonking down my hard-earned cash, but yeah, occasionally things go awry. My biggest disappointments of late have been cozy mysteries which promised to be amusing, and even though I am easily amused, apparently some reviewers have way more funny bones than I do.

    You do know that I slogged through Moby Dick last year and hated it, right? Well, except for the 150 or so pages that were really good.

    A very hefty portion of my reading matter is nonfiction, and those I check out quite carefully with random samples, as I am picky about narrative style and detest nonfiction that is more about the author than the topic (unless it was written by Bill Bryson, of course). It's pretty easy to pick those out.

    I don't know that I go in with specific expectations other than "tell me a good story", and am generally not disappointed.

    --Alex MacKenzie

  5. I'm like Alex. I read about 5 pages of a book, including the beginning and some random passages throughout before I buy a new book. It has served me well. I don't remember being mistaken in some time. Movies are a different matter. There they have you trapped in. The one book I found by random, scouring shelves and reading pages until I found one I liked, was Banville's The Sea. I thought I discovered an unknown writer. No, he is actually quite un-unknown.

  6. I'm hardly ever disappointed by nonfiction because it pretty much presents itself as what it is. Though a lot of nonfiction books are just too long, because the writer says all he has to say in the first 1/3 of the book and the rest is often just padding for length. I'm looking at you, Stephen Pinker.

    Possibly the risk is higher when buying literary fiction than it is when buying genre? Genre fiction, by its nature, sort of defines what it's supposed to be? How do you accurately describe in 250 words what Waterland or Naked Lunch or The Trial are like?

    Moby-Dick is a great book.

  7. Davin, shopping for books exhausts me and somehow depresses me as well. It takes forever to find something I want to read. I no longer have any favorite authors I reliably can go to, so what I do is waste an hour wandering around, touching spines and front covers and reading a few pages and saying "no, no, no" and becoming frustrated. Then in a panic I rush around the store and pick up five or six books, half of them classics and the other half new books that have been reviewed well or recommended by friends.

  8. I always look out for the comedy ones (I'm funny that way) and I've been misled by the semi-humourous back-cover and a quick read of the first couiple of pages. In both cases, I have still enjoyed the book as the writer is good and the story is SF.

  9. For me the bait & switch comes through blurbs and comparisons. If a book is touted as being similar to (or better than) a different book I've read and enjoyed, then it gets my interest.

    I read one book by Brad Meltzer called "The Book of Fate" that was hailed as being better than / more realistic than "The DaVinci Code" (which I am not ashamed to admit I enjoyed). The jacket copy alluded to secrets of Masonry and I thought I would have a fun conspiracy-thriller. Not the case. The story was not plausible, the characters were not appealing, and the Masonry references seemed thrown in at the last minute to ride a marketing wave; it could have been removed from the book without impacting the characters or plot.

    This is a rarity, though. For the most part I'm happy with my reading choices. It's the lack of quality reading time that frustrates me most.

  10. I call it the flurb--the fibbing blurb on the back cover which makes me think the books is one thing when it is really another.

    It happens in lots of books.

    I blame marketing.

  11. I'm totally with you on this Scott. I've gotten sucked in by book covers and blurbs, then let the first couple pages slide on content while it introduces the MC and world.

    When I discover the writeup isn't reflected in the content, I get really p.o.'d. Nothing is worse than a good hook that doesn't deliver.

    I'm like Davin and Alex; usually I read the first first few pages and some random pages to see if the book still grabs me. But like I say; I'm forgiving of the first few pages while I get to know the MC, so that doesn't always work either.


  12. I wouldn’t say I build a strong mental picture but I can’t not have certain expectations about a book. A good example is A S Byatt’s Ragnarok which I’ve just reviewed. Now as soon as I saw that Canongate were publishing this one (and it wasn’t a long book – hate long books) I dropped my contact an e-mail and said I’d be up to review it. I’ve had Byatt on my list of authors I wanted to read for a while but we never seemed to cross paths. I was expecting some kind of postmodern take on the whole thing but what I ended up with was a fairly straightforward, albeit well told (the woman can string a sentence together) retelling of the myths and since Norse mythology was never something that excited me as a child I couldn’t help but be disappointed. But the fault was all mine. There is nothing wrong with the book – it does what it says on the tin as they say. I can’t accuse Canongate of mispromoting the thing because they don’t. On the whole I try and go into new things – films, TV series, books – with as little information as possible so that I’m not let down. I learned my lesson from Tim Burton’s Batman film. I knew about that film years before it was out and I read every scrap of information I could lay my hands on and the bottom line is that nothing, no matter how good it was, was ever going to live up to the picture I had in my head and the worst of it was that it was a good film and I wasted it for myself. Never again.

  13. Jim: I've read a good deal of Byatt, so I know what I'm getting into with her. I'm not sure I'll read Ragnarok, but Mighty Reader probably will. I believe we have everything Byatt wrote on our shelves. Her nonfiction works about writing is great stuff.

    Anyway, of late I tend to be like you, trying to know as little as possible about a book when I go in so as not to be surprised. I usually only read the cover flaps or the back copy blurbage when I'm halfway into the book. Sometimes that's a mistake, too, because the cover copy will have spoilers for things that happen 3/4 of the way through the narrative. WTF, Europa Editions? Reading cover copy has put me off more good books than I care to count, so I just ignore it nowadays.

    For short story collections, I usually open the book to one of the stories in the middle and start reading and see if I like it. That's how I ended up owning Lydia Davis' Complete Stories. Had I read all the blurbs I would've put it down because some of the biggest praise comes from writers I don't necessarily like. So, huh. Just goes to show.

  14. I do get strong mental pictures of what a book will be like for me. I usually always research a book a little before buying it. Meaning I look up reviews, ask people about it, etc.

    A good example is the cover copy of Monarch. Mentions NOTHING about multiple POVs or possible family drama and not so much thriller as a regular thriller. But hey, it sells the book and hopefully people will fall in love. Right? :)


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