Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

I've found that many booksellers, when faced with the sometimes daunting task of deciding what to read next, have developed their own idiosyncratic "strategies." Often secret, until now.
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Chip Kidd is the Meryl Streep of book design. He is widely regarded as one of the best book designers of our time, well known for his brilliant and beautiful covers --Murakami's 1Q84, David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men -- covers designed to inspire readers to read the books. Which is why I feel a little disrespectful revealing to you, and to Kidd, that I don't judge a book by its cover.

Statistics say that most people do actually choose books based on their covers. Kidd certainly has contributed to that fact. But I've found that many booksellers, when faced with the sometimes daunting task of deciding what to read next, have developed their own idiosyncratic "strategies." Often secret, until now.

Michael, an online book dealer known for his acerbic wit and vast book knowledge, swears by "The Page 84 Test," a litmus test prescribed by a former Borders bookseller. He decides whether or not to read a book, by reading page 84 first. Michael says that by then, the plot, the characters, the writing, are all in full swing. So you can truly determine whether the book will be worth reading. It's like bypassing the courtship and fast forwarding six months into a relationship. (I can think of a couple of "books" I wouldn't have "read" if I could have seen that far ahead.)

Molly, another bookseller, grew tired of choosing books for herself. After all, she spends her days helping other people choose books. So she's turned to Click on up to four of a dozen sliders to choose the likes of funny or sad, expected or unpredictable, no sex or lots of sex, and the site will provide you with a list of recommendations. (It's like online dating, but without the awkward coffee dates.)

One bookseller I know uses (Though I suspect he uses this for every decision.) Another is reading authors in alphabetical order this year. Margaret Atwood for A, Aimee Bender for B . . . It may be awhile before I get my copy of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief back.

My own method is simple: If I can't decide whether to read a book, I check out the last word, on the last page. The book can be 100,000 words long and I'll still weigh entirely on that last word. Books that end with "that," "sacrificed," or "however," don't stand a chance. But I'm a sucker for "past," "ready," and my favorite, "home." Recently I picked up a book and the last word was "cake." Cake! (And yes, the book more than lived up to this delicious promise.)

In defense of these, some would say "irrational" approaches, let me remind you that booksellers are exposed to hundreds of new books every week. And the task of choosing what to read next can seem intimidating and impossible to many readers.

Some folks say they choose books based on titles. (There was a rumor years ago that a certain publisher instructed those reviewing the slush pile to only consider the titles of submissions before making the first cuts.) Other readers are heavily influenced by jacket cover reviews (also known as blurbs), but I'm skeptical. The source of my disillusionment? An author who wrote a glowing blurb for a book he hated because he wanted to be invited to the publisher's annual party, and another whose prolific career blurbing questionable books has earned him a reputation as a "book slut."

All of this is to say, a lot of time and effort is spent marketing books to readers in attempts to influence what we read, but in the end, reading is like love -- who we choose, and how we choose them, is sometimes beyond reason. And in the case of Mr. Kidd's books, it's simply love at first sight.

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