By staff writer Court Sullivan
If you’re like many college students, you probably lost the urge to read for fun the moment you got the required reading list the summer before starting high school. Since then, you’ve probably even started skimming Cliffs Notes. Don’t worry, this is why Cliff broke his notes into two sections: the two-page summary at the beginning and the chapter-by-chapter analysis later.
So, why are we not able to read books for fun anymore? Is it because we all have ADD? Yes, that’s part of it, but much of the problem stems from the fact that we’ve never been properly trained to choose a good book. Think about it: everyone has their own style when renting a movie at the video store, but what about when buying a book at the bookstore? Did you know that books have “running times,” award nominations, and tantalizing plot summaries too?
Conquering the fiction section is much easier than it seems-we just need to review a few fundamentals. By following these common sense literary guidelines, you can become a literary connoisseur in no time.
1. Make the bookstore your bitch. Have confidence that a book must win you over, not the other way around. You don’t have to give a book a chance if it’s not sending the right signals. Just because a book got published doesn’t mean it’s worth reading. Don’t let words like “Pulitzer Prize winner” or “Bestseller” influence your decision. Remember, the New York Times is just a regional newspaper.
2. Judge a book by its cover. If it has a picture of a gavel and a gun on it and you hate shows like Law and Order, put it back! Don’t go overboard though. Just because the illustrator used your favorite color for the title doesn’t mean the contents are going to be more appealing. But sometimes the cover can give some immediate negative clues: for example, if you can find the author’s name but not the title of the book on the front cover. Hiding a book’s title in four point font is a clear sign of literary weakness. Obviously these authors care more about themselves than their novels.
3. Read the front and back covers for a brief description, genre, plot summary or questions that pique your curiosity. Sometimes the plot summary will fill you up and you won’t even need the author to feed you a bunch of irrelevant words and sentences between the covers.
4. Spend a minute or two skimming a few pages to get the feel for the author’s writing style. Is the pace fast or slow? Do you like fast or slow? Do you like pace? Do you have an attention span for elaborate description or would you rather just read dialogue and simple-minded narration? Is the language eloquent, colloquial, or just boringly logical? Is the author going to insult you with vanilla words or a three-volume thesaurus? Remember, synonyms are cowardly redundancy and plain language is just plain and simple.
5. The author’s choice of font is very helpful in making first impressions. “Courier New” may be a sign that the story wasn’t long enough to be published in “Times New Roman.” “Gothic” fonts may indicate that the author is secretly communist. Also keep in mind that some authors send a much more powerful message in the “large print” section.
6. Read the last page. Oops! You read the ending! One less book you’ll have to worry about reading.
7. Read the section about the author if it’s included (usually in the back or on the inside back cover). This is the person who wrote the whole book! Don’t be afraid to stereotype a little. You definitely want to know about the author before you let him or her poison you with subjective viewpoints.
8. Avoid “bandwagon authors.” Authors like Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy have their books made into movies all the time. These are what good readers recognize as “sellout” authors. Authors that spend their whole lives writing are tied to it as a way of living. Supporting them leads to greed, second-rate sequels, and movies like “Congo” and “The Rainmaker.”
9. Look at the publishing date of the book. Is it a new release? Or is it one of those with a faded cover that the bookstore forgot to take off the shelf when people quit renting it years ago? I mean, buying it.
10. Most importantly, how long is the book? Flip to the end and look at the page number. Don’t forget to subtract out worthless sections like the prologue and foreword from the total number of pages to get an accurate count. How much time are you willing to devote to a single person’s perspective? Consider books that leave larger margins at the top and bottom of the page so it feels like you’re making more progress than you really are during a reading session.
Finding a good book isn’t difficult, you just have to know the right questions to ask and the correct assumptions to make. With a little practice, you’ll be a casual literary critic before you can say “Cliffs Notes!”