Thursday, October 7, 2010

Work in Progress: How Readers Find Books

I’m always curious to know how people end up choosing the books that they purchase and/or read. As a writer, I know a lot of other writers and I read a lot of book reviews, so I like to imagine that my selections are informed in some organized way—though just as often as not my selections are based on a random recommendation by a friend (but if she’s a writer, doesn’t that make it a smarter, more appropriate recommendation?). I pay attention to book reviews, but I often will bypass a book deemed a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph for a book that’s about some topic that interests me (New York City and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) even if the review is not so glowing.

Also, I have an irritating habit of immediately asking who wrote a book when someone mentions something they’ve been reading. Other writers are accustomed to this question and readily provide the information—if they didn’t lead with it—but “regular” people are often startled, as if they hadn’t considered the author’s role…which is kind of nice when you think about it: they’re into the story, not who wrote the story (and what credentials that writer might have).

So here’s a story about how a reader found a book:

I was recently at a dinner party and a “regular” woman mentioned to the group that she was reading the most amazing book, although it was quite dark. Naturally, I asked what the book was: “Room,” she said. (By Emma Donoghue.)

Because the book had been reviewed extensively (New York Times Book Review front page, The Washington Post) and I had heard the author interviewed somewhere (NPR, no doubt) and because it’s on the short-list for the Man Booker Prize, I wasn’t all that surprised that she might be reading this “It” book.

She explained what the book was about to the group—it’s told from the point of view of a five-year-old-boy who has spent his whole life locked in a tiny room with his mother by an abusive man (his father)—and there was some conversation about that topic as fiction and the real-life story that undoubtedly inspired it and how excellent the book was even though it was so dark and what a page turner it was and on, until I knew that I couldn’t wait for the paperback and would have to buy Room now.

Then—because this woman was so sweet and not the type who looks as though she would enjoy reading disturbing books—I asked how she had picked the book, and she said, “It was at Costco. We were on our way out but I wanted to grab a book, and I picked one up, read the first few pages…then I picked up this book, read some pages, and knew I had to keep reading.”

So there you have it, yet again: It’s the STORY, stupid. Not the name, not the awards, and not even the reviews. The STORY.

(Okay, with a little help from distribution.)

Then I recommended my favorite dark, disturbing book--We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver--and she told me she’d look for it.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.