Monday, March 19, 2007

Reading the book first

Think about this for a second -- have you ever read a book without reading the back cover first? It's something everyone does, like test-driving a car before you buy it. Even if it's a book I know I'm going to read (the latest book in a series I enjoy, maybe), I always read the cover blurb first. The book cover is the literary equivalent of a movie trailer; it lets you know the type of book you're about to read (in terms of genre and setting), it establishes who the main characters are, and it gives you the central thrust of the plot.

It also gives you a whole pile of preconceived notions about the book, some of which might not be accurate or might interfere with the storytelling. As an example, many mystery novels begin with a murder. And you generally know it; you know who your main character is because you read the back of the book, so when you see someone thrown overboard from a cruise ship on the first page, you're assuming you're seeing the crime that starts the story. Wouldn't it be fun and surprising to discover a few pages in that the "victim" didn't die, and is actually the main character? This is the premise of Carl Hiaasen's recent novel Skinny Dip. It was a good read, but it might have been more fun if I didn't know from the back cover that the murder on the first page was only an attempted murder.

I'm thinking about book covers because I'm trying to make a point of not reading them. I've recently read some good books in e-book format. They arrive in my inbox as text, complete with no cover information of any kind -- no plot summary, no artist's conception of the main character, just a recommendation from a friend. It's a different experience, diving into a book about which I know nothing. I get to discover everything as I read, and it's been a lot of fun. The e-book I just finished (third in a series) introduces an important secondary character. We don't find out whether he's a good guy or a bad guy until probably two-thirds of the way through the book -- and you're not really 100% certain whose side he's on until the end. After I finished the e-book I picked up a hard copy at Borders. I was a little disappointed to see the character described on the back cover as the "new sidekick"; I'm glad I skipped the cover text until I finished the book.

One of the books I'm reading now* is Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a work from the Speculative Fiction ├╝bergenre. I picked up the book because I've read her blog and enjoyed it; I'm curious how she writes fiction, since she blogs well and interestingly (answer: she writes very well, so far!). The story revolves around a mystery. I'm just over halfway through, and I've been picking up bits of the mystery for the entire novel so far. I have no idea what's going to happen, though, because I went out of my way to not read the back cover. When I finish the book, I'll have to read the blurbage to see how much it gives away. I suspect a lot; all it would take is one well-crafted back-cover sentence to damage the suspense of the first hundred pages. I know back-cover verbiage is important to sell books, just like movie trailers are important to sell movies. But I wish there were some way to get around the system. Other than just not reading the covers, that is.

If I ever invent a time-travel system, the first sign will be when a future version of me drops in with a pile of movies on unlabeled DVDs and books with the back covers removed and says, "you'll enjoy these, trust me." This would be the perfect system, not counting the potential for paradox.

*I'm generally in the middle of several books at once: usually, at the bare minimum I'm reading a work of fiction in print, a work of non-fiction in print, something inspirational (for wildly divergent values of "inspirational"), and an e-book.

Update, 6pm

I finished Four and Twenty Blackbirds. The blurbage wasn't awful, but sure enough, something referenced on the back cover doesn't even happen until two-thirds of the way through the book. Better, something mentioned on the back cover doesn't actually happen in the book at all....

And, I enjoyed the book. The writing is excellent, and Cherie Priest can turn a beautiful phrase. I like the main character, and I'm highly curious to read the next in the trilogy. I just placed it on hold at the library.


Jennifer B., Round Rock, TX said...

Speaking of books ...
LOVED "Old Man's War" - thank you for the recommendation. Kenn loaned me "The Android's Dream" just before Spring Break and I gobbled both books down in less than 5 days. I just got Kenn's copy of "Ghost Brigades" last night and am looking forward to devouring it this weekend. Do you have any other Scalzi/similar style books to recommend? Also interested in e-book versions (grin).

*hugs* miss you Tramp!

Jeff Mountjoy said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the wild Scalziness. If you're of the bored, check out his online novel, Agent to the Stars. It's a free download, and it's a good read if you're in a Scalzi mood and don't want to wait for The Last Colony. Check it out here: .