They say not to judge a book by its cover. But if we’re literally talking about books, what are the better options? This is a question that has tortured me forever, and for which I have no good answer. I’ve tried many options, yet somehow I still end up spending my very limited reading time on far too many books I regret reading. I recognize that many of these books do appeal to many people. But shouldn’t there be some signal I can use to work out if a book’s liable to appeal to me specifically?
Maybe so, but I haven’t found it yet. Here are a few straw men that are easy to knock down.
Read the first few pages, or skim a bit. I do like this option, because it’s easy. But some of the best books I’ve ever read start very, very slow. Many books have good hooks but go nowhere. Skimming has never told me anything much more helpful than whether or not the book is more exposition or dialogue.
Professional reviewers? I’ve made this mistake far too many times. Well known book reviewers in widely read publications tend to overflow with praise for terrible books. I’ve come to the conclusion that it can’t possibly have anything to do with what’s between the covers.
Online reviews? Online reviews are notoriously unreliable, although if a book has enough reviews, you can sometimes read between the lines a bit to work out which kinds of people felt which way about it. Still, it’s led me astray too many times.
Friends? I have few if any friends who admit to reading books, only one I occasionally discuss books with, and none who can produce well-informed advice about what I might like. I enjoy reading as a solitary activity, not a social one, so this isn’t likely to change, although it’s always remotely possible some new friend I haven’t met yet will turn out to have similar reading preferences.
Recommendation systems (e.g., what Amazon thinks you’ll like, based on your previous ratings)? Notwithstanding all the hand-waving I see about this, recommendation systems for books (and movies) are still terrible. When they recommend books (or movies) that they don’t know I’ve read or not, they’re mostly things I didn’t like.
Actually, yes, go by the cover. Blurbs are mostly useless, but the synopsis tells you something, and the cover itself probably has some clues about who the publisher thought the book would appeal to. Not a great option, but is it really any worse than the rest?
Books by authors you’ve enjoyed in the past. Sure, this can work out well. But you wouldn’t be in this predicament if you hadn’t already more or less exhausted that supply, or if you weren’t looking for find something new.
Am I missing something? I don’t have a good solution, other than doing the best I can with these noisy bits of information, and being prepared to drop them frequently.
The situation is possibly a little better for movies. I feel like with movies, there are far more cues about what kind of movie you’re getting yourself into. Maybe because movies are more stereotyped somehow? Because it’s much easier to get a sense of a movie from a few clips? Or possibly just because the relative popularity of movies means there are many more options for getting opinions of all kinds.