How I choose the books I read next: a rant.

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I have confession to make: I hate blurbs. Or synopsises (but I prefer the word ‘blurb’ – it makes an interesting phonetic sound, try it). 9.9 times out of 10, the reading of one makes me put down the book instead of carrying it to the counter of my over-priced bookstore.

You may be staring in abject horror at the screen. Or you may be preparing to begin a slow clap. Don’t do either. Or, at least, not until you reach the end of this post.

An early Alice in Wonderland pop-up book I saw at a library exhibition (click to enlarge)

Recently confined to my bed, I decided to categorise the different types of blurbs:

  • The good ones. These are extremely rare.
  • The badly written, cliché ones. They often mirror the badly written, cliché books, but not always. Unfortunately, I never know, as I rarely open the book after being subjected to one of these babies. I do, however, enjoy dramatically reading romance book blurbs out loud. It’s an excellent pick-me-up.
  • The overly detailed ones. These give away the entire story, and not just because the plot is unoriginal. Personally, I like to blame the designers for leaving far too much space on the back (or side-cover) of a book, but I’m not 100% sure why this still happens in the Twitter era.
  • The minimalistic ones. These are comprised of one or two short sentences. Hint: unless the book is part of the Harry Potter series, there is no way I would know enough about it to be swayed by your mysterious copywriting.
  • The praise-instead-of-a-blurb ones. These piss me off the most. Look, I don’t care if the book is by Cormac McCarthy, I just want to know what it’s about. Is that too much to ask?!

This last category makes me want to call up the publisher and tell them they’re pretentious douchebags. Particularly when, upon opening the book in the hopes that there’s more information inside, one encounters another three pages of praise. It’s annoying, is what it is, and no one believes it do they? Do they?

I mean, there’s no telling if you have the same taste as a gushing reviewer. What’s more, who says the gushing reviewer actually gushed in their review? They could have listed all the ways in which the book was the equivalent of reading a seven-year-old kid’s grammar homework, but you can be sure the publisher would have picked out some innocuous phrases for their self-aggrandising glory party.

No book exhibition would be complete without some Penguins

What about the motivations of the reviewers? Maybe they aspire to their review being published, or maybe they just don’t have the balls to say a book is crap? All this nonsense about “Oh, but they put soooo much effort into writing it.” Look, there’s no participation trophies in writing; plenty of people try hard at things and continue being bad at them. 

Which leads us to the crux: I don’t give a rat’s ass how many people like the book. I just want to know if I’ll like it. Is that too much to ask?

So, as usual, Wikipedia is my saviour.  No more wading through gimmicky blurbs and untrustworthy praise – when I’m deciding which book to read next on my list, I use Wikipedia. In one nifty sentence, I learn what the book’s about and can, using complex scientific reasoning, figure out if I’ll read it now, or continue procrastinating well into the future (I’m looking at you, Sense and Sensibility).

Are there any types of blurbs I’m missing here, or any suggestions for avoiding the tentacled blurb-monster? Sympathy? Cough medicine?

Edit: This article has now been published over at Aidy’s Poetry.

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19 responses to “How I choose the books I read next: a rant.

  1. This was a really interesting posting. When I first started to read “The Ginger Man” for my blog last year, the critical praise on the book cover kept saying how hilarious it was. I think I laughed ONCE during the entire novel…and not even that hard.

    I don’t ever read book reviews that aren’t by fellow bloggers. I’ve just recently started thumbing through the usually pretentious, overly academic ‘introduction’ most classics books have, just to get a feel for the author, but you can’t even read those because they give away the ending. I think that has been the great thing about reading the ML list…it doesn’t really matter what the back cover says because I have to read it anyway. :)

    Have no fear, I am sure you are not alone in your feelings!

    • I usually read the introductions after I’ve finished the book. I’m one of those people that wants to know the history/backstory behind everything, even if it waffles on. I think I should maybe work in a museum :)
      That’s true about reading through the list. Since I don’t read mine in order, there’s so more room for me to put off the books I don’t want to read. Which isn’t a good thing, since that’s the whole reason I started this project. I think I might go tackle a book I’ve been procrastinating on now…

  2. WIKIPEDIA! Ilona, I am shocked! Now I have proof that I can use Wikipedia as a collegian reference! My college professor is an ass! I got a minus 15 once on a MAJOR test because I used Wikipedia as a reference (yes, I failed it). Now I can bring him your article and show him that brilliant people do actually use Wikipedia!

    psst…Since your post was in regards to ranting…I decided to add my 2 cents worth :)

    I do not know what annoys me about books, all I know if I can get pass, like you mentioned, the completely useless prologue from the author or publisher (I actually just skip it, unless its from T. Goodkind or someone like that I would usually read it). I am glad I am not the only one who does that!

    You own a bookstore? I can’t believe I missed reading this about you! No wonder you are absolutely fantastic with writing your reviews! If only I was surrounded in books for an eternity! I just do not have the privilege as often as I would like, to read a good book. Glad I have you to rescue me from time to time with your awesome reviews.

    • They did a test – Wikipedia is actually more correct than the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, Professors get quite upset at Wiki references. I’ve heard of some of my friends’ law professors planting incorrect information on relevant articles in Wiki to catch students out.

      I never reference Wikipedia – they fail students at my uni for it. I do read it as the first point of call for an overview of a subject (though not the whole article if it’s for a book, since I don’t want to be spoiled), and if I ever need references, I click on those footnotes down the bottom. But only if I’m really desperate.

      Prologues are definitely tacked on, but I’ll read them after I finished the book for more context. I’m one of those people that likes to know all about the backstory behind the book or the author.

      OMG I wished I owned a book store. No, when I said ‘my bookstore’, I meant my local book store. I should probably edit that to make it a little clearer. When I was at uni, I didn’t read anything other than my textbooks or the occasional chapter of Harry Potter to offset the stress. It’ll make it even better when you’re on holidays or even graduated, and you have all these books to be read, trust me.

  3. Makes perfect sense. I like your way of thinking. I’m going to have to start doing the same.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I, too, am frequently annoyed by the poorly written blurb and often wonder what it would take to get that job…

  5. Those who can, write. Those who can’t, blurb.

  6. The praise instead of a blurb category is one of my pet peeves in life! But what i also hate is the praise-for-another-book-written-previously-by-the-same-author-instead-of-a-blurb-for-this-book type of blurb e.g. you pick up Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and instead of a blurb for that book you get Praise for Dan’s Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. My intepretation? The current book is terrible and will not live up to the author’s previous book so please don’t hold it against them…:)

    • I forgot about praise for previous books! You’re right, that’s so annoying & I totally agree with your interpretation. When will the publisher’s learn that we aren’t as dumb as they seem to think we are: I’m not going to stare at oodles of praise, a lack of blurb, and go ‘Oh, ok, lots of smart people like it, I guess I’ll have to read it.’

  7. Are you getting ready to read Sense and Sensibility? I’m curling up with Pride and Prejudice; my first by Austen.

  8. Pingback: navigating 'existential crises' - My name is Ilona, still , , mysterious, believes , Oh but they put soooo much effort into writing it - AIDY's Poetry Blog

  9. Pingback: 64. The bare bones of The Lovely Bones? | The Friande

  10. To be clear, what DO you want to see on the back of the book? Just a paragraph summarizing the plot? Or are you looking for something more along the lines of “vitals”: genre, target audience, theme, etc.?

    So you’re not impressed by Forewords written by established authors (Is that what you guys meant, or were you really talking about prologues, which are part of the book itself?) or snippets from reviews, but what about actual ratings? If they post five snippets that all say “5 stars”, does that influence you? What about Amazon reviews and ratings? Amazon or NYT best seller lists?

    I’m finishing up on a fantasy/YA book, and I’m sorely tempted to make the back of the book text in only two paragraphs: 1) a brief summary of the plot and 2) a description of everything that is NOT in the book, starting with “NO VAMPIRES!” But, that would probably be too smartass.

    Any thoughts on covers?

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