Why blurbs mess with your brain, and how to defeat them

 

 Wistfully, you slowly turn the final page of the book you’ve been reading.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
The Reader
1877
Oil on canvas

You loved it.  You close your eyes, and regretfully drag your mind away from the interior world it’s been happily inhabiting for however-long-it-took-you-to-read.

After a respectful pause, it’ll be time to immerse yourself in another volume. But what?

In the days BC (Before Computers) you’d have trotted down to your local bookshop armed with a recommendation, a vague idea and a willingness to browse.

There, you’d have found the literary genres helpfully segregated for you in different bookcases, rather like boarding gates at an airport. (Which is, come to think of it, rather a profound analogy.  If a book is anything, surely it’s a portal for a flight into the unknown …)

Anyway. I digress.

Unless you were speeding like a heat-seeking missile straight towards the sequel, you’d probably head for the shelves housing whatever you were in the mood for next – maybe Humour, Crime or Non-Fiction.  Or perhaps something a bit niche like Poetry, Biography or SciFi. (This was before the advent of parvenu genres like ChickLit or FantasyTeenVampireHorrorRomance, obviously.)

bookshop

And what a tactile undertaking it all was. You’d peruse the spines, cherrypick a few titles, tip them towards you and feel the heft as they tumbled into your palm.  You’d run your fingers appreciatively over the author’s name embossed on the cover.  You’d riffle the pages and inhale that new-book-smell.  You’d check out the plot summary on the back.  Then the personal endorsement, or blurb, if there was one.  You’d read a page or two just to make sure (on a sofa, with a coffee if it was that type of bookshop).  Then you’d buy it.  And – buoyed up with tingly anticipation – take it home.

But that was then. It’s not the same now.  Most of us choose our reading material online nowadays, which may be convenient; but ebrowsing books (or ebooks) is clunky at best.  There’s no romance, no ritual. And no new-book-smell.

But that’s nothing compared to battling the overwhelmingly commercialised nature of modern publishing, which tries continually to force your hand. Supposing you still have a local bookstore to buy the real thing from, you’re now obliged, like a kind of literary Indiana Jones, to hack your way through a jungle of overblown blurb and flap copy.

rainforest

Blurbery has now reached such heights of hoo-ha and hype that it corrodes the selection process and prevents you making an informed decision. It’s book roulette.  How can you choose, when every paperback describes itself as an unputdownable must-read which will change your life while making you scream with laughter?

Anyway, sounds exhausting.

Surely I can’t be the only reader to have laid something aside in bewildered disappointment, checked the blurb and concluded the blurbiste and I simply couldn’t have been reading the same thing. You too? I knew it.

And perplexingly, sometimes they blatantly haven’t. Look closer, and you may find those breathless recommendations prefacing many a serial thriller refer to the author’s previous title.  Or the one before that.

All this relentless marketing is, of course, simply to make you buy product. That’s it.  Nothing to do with whether you’re going to enjoy the book.  No interest whatever in whether the text will deliver the bold claims trumpeted on its attention-grabbing glossy cover.

So what’s the answer? Here are a few suggestions for doing battle with the blurb.

Lending between friends – or borrowing from that help-yourself bookshelf at your workplace/coffee shop/hospital or whatever.  Always a good idea.

coffee

Download a free sample of an ebook before you buy.  Though I have to confess most of my samples have stayed just that. I didn’t part with cash for the full version.  However, they – like most cinema trailers I have seen – acted as handy warning indicators of things I wouldn’t want to buy.  With a bargepole.  So in a negative way, I suppose they fulfilled their purpose in preventing expensive and time-wastey booky mistakes.  Job done.

How about those “people who bought that also liked this” algorithms? Worth a look. You can make some great discoveries that way.  Or not.

Friends’ recommendations. Although proceed with caution, because – as you’ve probably discovered – tastes can vary wildly.  Even between close friends.  What Friend A loves, Friend B may consider unmitigated tosh. Sorry.  It happens. And you certainly don’t want to tarnish a beautiful friendship with book angst.

Libraries. If you’ve still got one near you, that is.  A library may not deliver that new-book-smell, but you’ll certainly get a hefty browsing fix.  And sustainability brownie points.

What about you?  How do you select books you think you’ll enjoy?  How do you go about avoiding the tosh and improving your reading-satisfaction hit rate?  Let me know.

Happy reading.

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