How I Judge Books

People are supposed to judge books by the cover, by the blurbs and by who the author is. I have favorite books with unappealing covers, done in an out-of-date style, or an old illustration slapped on the front. I tend to avoid books in which the author’s name is larger than the title. That’s a lesson I learned after picking up a few of those and being so disappointed that I did not bother to finish them. Maybe the authors had produced better quality at one time, but fame, or the quantity of books they pumped out, resulted in a negative effect on that quality.

Rarely do I pay any attention to blurbs, unless one happens to be written by someone whose judgment I trust. (There are only a handful of people I trust to know what I like to read.) If I peruse a book that interests me, I do not read the first pages. But I choose randomly, often a section in the middle of the book. I don’t expect the text to grab me immediately, but a good author is able to be engaging throughout the book and not just in the first chapter.

Finally, I don’t really pay attention to the author’s ethnicity, age, or gender, or even the year that the book was written.

Years ago, in the main Cincinnati Library, I picked up The Idiot because the title intrigued me. At that time, I was young, not well read, and still reading the first chapter to evaluate books. As I read this one the conversation between the characters intrigued me—a man who had been isolated for years and another so infatuated with being in love that he was dangerous to the object of his love. I had never heard of Fyodor Dostoevsky before. Yet, reading that book convinced me that it was worth my time to read others by him.

Recently in an online class, I asked an American Asian author why he was so intent on the idea that knowing ethnicity, gender, and age of the artist were as important as knowing what the author wrote. He indicated that knowing the background information about the author was necessary to interpret the works correctly. If that is true, I wasted years reading books that I didn’t realize were written by Europeans, Africans, Central and South Americans, and Asians. I didn’t study the authors’ backgrounds first. I decided if I liked their work based on their actual writing.

Having to learn about the author doesn’t make me think more highly of their work. A good writer reaches for universal themes. The readers should be able to bring what they have as human into the writing in order to gain something from it. If I have to know about the author’s background in order to appreciate the book, then the author is not really doing their job.

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