Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Hot Off the Shelves

For the last five days, Banzai Cat has asked: All things being equal, would you pick up a copy of Pelevin, or a copy of Pynchon?

While I'd like to give him a straight answer, I admit that I'm not advanced enough to know who Pelevin and Pynchon are, much less what their writing style is like. All things being equal, I'd just flip a coin and walk away with a random volume... and I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't appreciate that kind of wishy-washy answer.

His dilemma did get me thinking, however: Just how do we pick out books from the shelves? I mean, there's got to be a psychological system in there somewhere; otherwise I would barely be reading or exploring stuff in the first place. Such a system wouldn't guarantee that one would pick the best books, of course, but I imagine that there should be some sort of logic behind our selection process.

For starters, let's assume that we have a "random" bookstore: It should contain a collection of books resembling what you might find in a contemporary place of sale (i.e. not a library, for reasons that will be important later on), which means that everything available there should reflect whatever is also available for sale at this current period of time. Its collection should be properly divided among a number of atypical genres (e.g. "General Fiction", "Mystery", "Horror", and so forth). The shelves should be arranged with the various works by various authors in alphabetical order. And finally, let's assume that we're loose inside such a bookstore, free to pick out whatever you want and bring it to the checkout counter.

Given this hypothetical scenario, to which section — and which books — would we gravitate? What would our probable path look like? And most importantly, what are we most likely to buy?

While the answer would definitely be different for each individual, I know that I have a personal "system" that I invariably follow. From first to last:

1. Section. I think that a lot of people go through the various genres in some order; I usually go through Magazines, then Fantasy, then Science Fiction, then the Graphic Novels. From there, it's invariably the Hobby and Reference books, then the Young Adult section, then perhaps the New Releases and General Fiction areas. (Mystery and Horror are saved for the book sales.)

The first few sections obviously reflect my personal interests: I look for plotlines with interesting premises, or at least some quick reads. Then I look for anything that rewards analytical (but non-speculative, non-abstract) thinking. Beyond that, it downgrades into a search for "interesting-looking stuff".

2. Author. People probably have a tendency to look for familiar authorship. If you've read and enjoyed a given work in the past, then you're likely to hold that author in higher esteem the next time you pick out a book. If anything, it makes them a better prospect than the rest of the faceless crowd.

I've already mentioned that I tend towards Terry Pratchett, Lillian Jackson Braun, Roald Dahl, and Stephen King's short stories... but I also work up the urge to pick up George R. R. Martin's books, and browse through anything by Clifford Pickover or Martin Gardner. Dr. Dennis Shasha is probably the newest addition to my list here, and I add a new name about twice a year or so.

3. Placement. Assuming that I don't find anything interesting from a familiar author, I proceed to scan the shelves. Space is usually tight in large-scale stores like our hypothetical one, which means that bookshelves are usually packed from top to bottom. I feel that this provides an important make-or-break scenario, because casual browsers are more likely to check the upper rows than the lower ones. (A person who squats down to look at the bottom row is either a voracious reader, or is looking for something really specific.)

4. Title. A strange-sounding or interesting-looking title is usually enough motivation for me to pull a book off the shelf and thumb through it. Enough said, really.

5. Cover Illo. There are a number of things that turn me on about certain covers. I like hand-painted fine art, for instance, or at least some sort of filigreed design that indicates that somebody put a lot of work into the cover. If a book is part of a series, then some progression on the part of the cover illustration is attractive to me.

I usually don't pick up minimalist cover designs unless the title is really strong; these place a lot of pressure on the book's contents in order to hook readers, but if the writing style is slow and deliberate, then I don't think that a casual glance through the book will be enough for a trip to the cashier. I also avoid covers that depict full-blown stereotypes (e.g. killer cyborg robots hunting a man with a really big gun and a woman wearing a loincloth), because those aren't good testaments as to what lies within. And as a rule, any cover where the author's name is in a larger font than the title should be avoided like the plague.

6. Synopsis. A synopsis can make up for anything as long as it's written right. The most prominent experience I had here involved a certain copy of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which, despite its humdrum impression and mundane cover image, nevertheless got me taking it home in a paper bag.

I feel that a good synopsis has to follow a number of unspoken rules: First, it shouldn't give away any critical plot points. Second, it shouldn't bombard the reader with technical terms. Third, it should raise at least one point of interest, some compelling reason for a person to open the book and find out what happens. (As you can probably imagine, mystery novels are good at this sort of thing.)

I find that I tend to get bored by synopses that focus on themes that I see explored on a regular basis (e.g. "save the world" scenarios, poor-boy-and-princess stories, anything involving dragons). In addition to that, I feel that character names are just as important as a first impression — I can never relate to any synopsis that features what seems like a silly-sounding name to me.

7. Price Tag. I'm a cheap man. If I feel that the book isn't worth the price tag stuck to its back cover, then I put it back on the shelf. It's for this reason that I almost exclusively pick up paperback volumes, and even then only if they're somewhere around Php200.00 or so. (I'm willing to pay up to about Php500.00 for something that's hard to find, though.) Graphic novels often bear the brunt of my irrationality here — I usually don't feel that a 120-page collection of art and dialogue has enough repeat value to justify a Php1500.00 price.

8. Coin Flip. When all else fails and I'm down to picking out one of many volumes, I flip a coin — literally. I've had salesladies give me amused looks while doing so.

...And that's why, if it were to come down to Pelevin and Pynchon where all other things are equal, I'd pull out my wallet and see if I have change.

The system is probably different for each and every one of us, but I hypothesize that we hold one thing in common: The lower the distinction goes on the list for each book that we pick out, the greater the chance that we can just chuck it away before we reach the counter. That means that if we ever run into circumstances where it's practical to pull something out of the basket and deposit on an idle shelf (such as insufficient funds or a long line at the cashier), it's most likely something of low hierarchy that we leave behind.

I would be greatly interested to find out (or figure out) if anyone else uses such a system, and if so, the degree to which it resembles the one I have here. Over twenty years and some good exposure to some noble "pack rat" tendencies, this usually results in a lot of books... as well as enough idle time to come up with strange analyses like this.


Melissa said...

Hot off of the presses for me was John Patrick Lamont's book "The Worst Kind of Lies." It combines my favorite genre, mystery/fiction, with truth. Amazing how a fiction book can help me become better informed and more involved in my financial planning so that I am not victimized. It was a sweet trip.

banzai cat said...

well, I was faced with the latter conundrum and except for placement, all the aforementioned elements had a choice in my indecision. Cover illo, not so much, as I'm used to current fantasy/SF covers-- though this also depends on my own estimation of self-worth when I buy them ;-).

I've never actually gone through the coin flip scenario. However, one element I'd like to add is serendipity: on a trip to Booktopia's last selling day, I bought Forrest Aguirre's Leviathan 4: Cities as well as Peter Crowther's Cities collection. When you got something like that lined up, it's like heavens telling you something already. :-D

Dominique said...

The boobies always do it for me, but perhaps not so much as a low, low price. Heh.

Sean said...

Melissa: I like to think that there's an element of truth in every bit of fiction, even if some of us read about robot dragons living on alien planets, or something like that. Now, a book that actually affects how one configures one's activities... that's rare.

Banzai Cat: So... did you pick up Pelevin, or Pynchon? I should have mentioned that picking up both was a possible option, I think.

Serendipity, on the other hand, is a fine thing... but I think that that assumes that there's a list of books somewhere in our subconscious minds that we would pick up if given the chance. It mucks up the math of randomicity, but I suppose that I shouldn't question the pleasure of picking up something that we wanted to find for the longest time.

Dominique: You know you've reached a certain age when you start picking up books for the price tag over the puerile instinct. Heh.