THE BLOG
07/22/2013 02:44 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2013

A Primer To Finding A Good Read

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According to UNESCO there were 328,000 new books or editions published in the U.S. in 2010.
Since 1865 there have been some 60,000 books on the U.S. Civil War alone. I have wide-ranging interests in fiction and non-fiction, but can realistically only read 20-30 books a year (0.000091 of all new books printed annually/2.5% of each year's Civil War output). Not to mention all the classics I once foolishly promised myself I'd read before I die. I'm now locked in a race to read Dead Souls before I am one.

Because of my limitations, I've created this semiotics-based primer to finding a good read.

Approaching the bookstore (if your city has one)
Besides guns and replacement human ears, new 3-D printer technology permits us to glimpse a future where e-books are transformed, taking archived digital information and ink-jetting it onto paper, layered in three-dimensions. The dream of Gutenberg realized at last. There's more: scientists at MIT are rumored to be at work fashioning, entirely from gelatinous layers of fatty cell tissue, a squeezable-copy of Lionel Shriver's novel on obesity, Big Brother.

But for now, 3-D pioneers must rely on bookstores. If you are in Washington, DC and can get to Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle, your problems are solved. Titles there have been screened by a talented committee of disappointed ABDs from various esoteric disciplines. Otherwise...

The covers

Book covers tend to be loosely color-coded based on subject-matter. Below is a rough legend for some sample topics, meant to speed up the browsing process:
  • Green: Gardening, Environment, Vietnam War
  • Sky-blue: Chick lit, Over-fishing
  • Dark blue: Arctic, Nautical, Paris, France
  • Darker blue: Whodunits, Oversexed Billionaires, Some Nazis
  • Earth tones: American Revolution, Abe Lincoln, Westerns, Tuscany
  • Red: Russia, China, Capitalism, Books by extreme U.S. conservatives, Remaining Nazis
  • White: Cultural Studies, African poverty, American dieting, Personal failure memoir
  • Neon: South Florida fiction, Yoga, Female comedians, Books by extreme U.S. liberals
  • Gold: Dystopia, Fantasy kingdom trilogies, Current Middle East
Beyond the covers Embrace:
  • A short novel about India (if such a thing exists).
  • A slim, one-volume biography of a U.S. president (if such a thing exists).
  • Flip to the end of the book. No, not to the story's climax or ending, but two or three pages past that, to the more important "Note on the Type". Is it Bembo? Because you know your time will be profitably spent if this last word reads like the plotting for a future Hilary Mantel novel. Key elements: it should feature a somewhat confusing tale of a persecuted but brilliant Pomeranian typesetter in the 16th century, affiliated with Martin Luther, who flees Heidelberg for the Hague. There his precious tin letters (and life) are lost, only to be unearthed later by a Huguenot sculptor who escapes France to London, where he too dies but not before adding serifs. The font is eventually, albeit briefly, feted by the Bloomsbury Set in 1914-1915, before being diagnosed 'too highly strung', only to be finally refurbished and restored to its true and deserved glory in 2010 by artisans wearing period dress working in a small print shop in rural Vermont.
Avoid:
  • Anything with 'Bees' in the title.
  • New fiction which features any of these MFA/creative-writing words in the first three pages: "ziggurat" or "zeitgeist"; "shot through" or "washed" or "limned"; "WTF".
  • A new interpretation of some aspect or heretofore unknown episode of the Civil War (again, 60,000 books already written).
  • Books telling you how to think about thinking: the afterlife, a previous life; free will, fate; the wisdom of crowds, the sagacity of solitary people; why introverts succeed, why talkative people excel.
  • Two-part book titles of this sort: Why Brussels Sprouts are Not Named for Brussels, Belgium - and How This Shaped the Modern World. Or: Grey Goose: Why Big Data Predicts Most People Will Die - But a Surprising Few Will Not. The hyphen is key, the transition from a dull, dubious publishing proposition into something urgent, something that promises to explain how the world got into this state.
  • Book titles combining a quaint pastime or leisure pursuit with a country of national security interest to the U.S. In the eyes of some publishers, apparently, yellow cakes and yellow-cake go well together. A fun parlor game is to come up with your own titles, extra points awarded for alliteration. Here are a few: The Cupcake Maker of Kurdistan. The French Horn Player of Fallujah. The Jane Austen Book Club of Jalalabad. The Art of Making Muffins at Midnight in Mogadishu. The Taliban Table-Tennis Club, and it's sister volume, Ping-Pong in Pyongyang.
Word of Mouth

Close friends sense my skepticism when they recommend a title (American Psycho). But hurt feelings be damned -- I've been burned (Finnegans Wake). Having friends suggest a book is like being set up on a blind date (Tucker Max). Who or what you're paired with is insignificant compared to what you discover about what your friends think about you (The End of Boys, Portnoy's Complaint, The Liar's Club). Conversely, I recall the look of horror on my grandmother's face when she saw me reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, which she assumed was still banned on three continents.

Book clubs are hit-and-miss, such as the one I belonged to a few years ago, where three members (breathless, self-important World Bank types) arrived one evening unprepared, one claiming The Kite-Runner was out of print, the other that it was not available in bookstores. The third excused herself by saying that she was "Just back from Nairobi" - which is what World Bank types always say. The rest of us (me) nearly choked on our baked brie and Malbec.

Goodreads.com is fine, though it feels like a literary Costco. Bestseller lists feel too much like 'big data', as if Nate Silver is looking over my shoulder ("That's right, I see you there in the 3rd Congressional district, flipping though Gone Girl, just as I predicted....").

Strangers are no help: riding the subway, I feel I'm not reading enough New Testament. Or manga.

Cues from the book reviews

  • Beware the NY Times or NY Review of Books reviewer who enthuses about a subject because he/she is one of the few people in the world even mildly interested in the subject. Example: a frothing tribute to a new 900-page history of the Defenestration of Prague by the world's only other living expert on the Defenestration of Prague.
  • Beware dust-jacket reviews from prolific gushers. Example: Isabel Allende.
  • Beware jacket reviews that come exclusively from small-town, possibly non-existent, periodicals. "Four stars!" Sulphurville (WV) Appalachia Leader.
  • Dust-jacket reviews which heap general or vague praise -- open to various interpretations - on the author but are not specific to the book in your hands. Caution also if you see too many "....."s. "Vladimir Boateng consistently publishes meticulously spell-checked books....hard to put down...few can question his agent's....connections (publishing couch, anyone?)....dazzling influence that will surely have you standing up and..... out loud.....crying and....".