Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How to choose a novel: the page 69 test

From an excerpt from John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide:
For the reader of novels the question is: where to start? Is there any point in starting, or shaping one's reading experiences? How can one organise a curriculum? Ours is not, like the 1940s, an age of austerity: it is not money - expensive as new hardback novels, quite irrationally, seem - but time that is in short supply. How, then, to find the novels that you do have the time to invest in? As the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (the original for Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout) observed: "Ninety per cent of science fiction is crap. But 90 per cent of everything is crap." How can we identify the 10 per cent, or less, of fiction available that is not crap?
Sutherland says to not judge a book by its cover.
Dust jackets, blurbs, shoutlines, critics' commendations ("quote whores", as they are called in the video/DVD business) all jostle for the browser's attention. But I recommend ignoring the hucksters' shouts and applying instead the McLuhan test.
Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works. Rule One, then: browse powerfully and read page 69.
I've never tried that approach. [UPDATE: But hundreds of authors now have.]

To read more of the Sutherland excerpt, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue