I’d love to end this story by saying that reading his work was a transformational experience. The truth is, after I went to all that trouble, his writing didn’t really appeal and I didn’t finish the book. (I’m not naming him, he’s just an innocent bystander in my obsession, and he’s clearly a talented writer with a devoted fan base.)
It led me to think about the lengths a committed book lover will go to, driven by curiosity, passion and the more unedifying fear of missing out.
Of course most people would not have been curious in that situation. I’m equally interested in what does motivate the casual reader, the person who buys a book for their holiday or read for ten minutes each night before they fall asleep. Even people I know who read a lot but are not engaged in the worlds of blogging or social media often tell me they don’t know what to read next. (It’s not true that ‘everyone’ is on social media, I had colleagues in my last job who were reluctant to even use email.)
There is plenty of research on this, but it never quite rings true for me. Word of mouth is often cited as the main way people discover books, but I think word of mouth for books works differently from other products. If I’m alone in the lift with a work colleague struggling for small talk, I might tell them that I visited a new restaurant at the weekend and that it’s definitely worth going. I wouldn’t feel the need to enquire first about their dietary preferences or whether they enjoy dining out.
However I’d be unlikely to share the fact that I had read a really good book, or discovered a fascinating author, unless I already knew they were a keen reader. Reading is a more private activity , and one we mainly discuss with people we know share our interest.
Maybe when people say word of mouth what they really mean is they don’t know how they heard of the book, but when they looked for something to buy it was already familiar to them. They may have spotted it in an ad, or read about it, or seen someone reading it on the train, but it didn’t register until later. I have a friend who likes to read but doesn’t get much time. She will grab a title from the front table of a bookshop without reading the description or the first page, just on the basis of that familiarity.
These days I mostly discover new books via bloggers, reviewers and social media along with marketing emails from publishers via Netgalley (although their targeting is erratic, for some reason they think I’m a massive fan of commercial women’s fiction).
There’s also serendipity. Unfortunately as libraries are ever more starved of funds it becomes harder to borrow the book you want, but it does encourage you to pick up something you wouldn’t normally have considered. I used to like the random nature of charity shops and second-hand bookshops as well, though I must admit I’m more likely now to buy books that are discounted on Kindle.
Things I don’t rely on: I don’t read broadsheet reviews anymore. I just feel that they cover the same narrow range of authors and opinions. I also don’t tend to trust their impartiality – often the reviewer will have some kind of connection with the author, in that they’re in the same social circle or have the same agent or whatever.
The famed recommendation engines of Amazon and Goodreads don’t often turn up things that interest me but it does happen, as do other chance discoveries while browsing. There are also more unconventional means. I am that terrible person who reads over your shoulder on public transport, the one who has to steal the book they hadn’t finished from the holiday cottage (but I’d leave another in its place, so it’s really more of a hostage exchange).
Perhaps more mysterious than the discovery process is what tips us from knowing about a book to actually buying it. The longest I can recall is over a decade.
Someone recommended Jane Smiley to me back in the nineties. I got as far as looking for her books in my local library but the only one they had available was Horse Heaven. This didn’t really appeal to me because it was about horse-racing. I don’t know why I didn’t reserve one of her other titles, perhaps because in those days there was no online catalogue and it was quite a cumbersome process involving index cards and filling out forms and talking to staff. Or maybe I just didn’t care enough. I certainly didn’t buy any of her books.
A decade later I was listening to World Book Club on the BBC World Service when Jane Smiley was on talking about A Thousand Acres. I decided that I would look for a copy and then forgot about it. A few weeks later Good Faith was in our local convenience store for £1.50 so I splurged. I went on to read and enjoy most of her books (including Horse Heaven) and wondered why I’d waited so long.
What are your odd book discovery stories? Where do you normally find new books?