The Joys of Book Shop Browsing. Bookshops are seductive. In my childhood, I spent hours in libraries, but in adulthood found there was nothing like browsing the tables in a bookshop, sadly currently out of bounds in our Covid times. The excitement of discovering a cover that catches your eye by its colour, image, beauty or intrigue! Though I now buy less books to keep (bookshelves have limits) I still cherish some beautiful hardback and gold-tooled leather books. But at present it is good writing I covet, new ideas, challenges, information and perspectives on the human condition. Often, I simply desire entertainment. So how to find such delights without a table display? How to discover a book with a blurb that shouts, ‘Buy me!’?
Online browsing is not equivalent, being less random, more governed by genre (an artificial and restrictive practice!) or by knowing an author. and spitting out titles based on what you have recently read: i.e. more of the same. The new and innovative books that might appeal cannot be adequately generated by algorithm, for just because I liked Phillipa Gregory does not mean I will like Hilary Mantel, while books in the same genre can differ wildly: crime writer John Rankin has little in common with M.C. Beaton.
So where else? Newspaper literary supplements have been a rich source of potential titles for me, though not at the point they come only in £20+ hardback (despite me now knowing how little of that goes to the author). Friends and family can be helpful. Sites like Goodreads I find too time-consuming (and anyway I hear it is owned by Amazon). If I haven’t got a bookshop with delicious tables and helpful assistants who’ve read zillions of the books for usefully inspiring me, I want a search tool to allow me to find something according to my whim of the moment. A book to escape into. Perhaps one involving life in another particular time or country? A book showing women’s courage? Or set in the world of politics or archaeology? A story to enthral, thought provoking and well plotted. The oft-used hype of ‘page-turning thriller’ is often a misnomer. Big Book Prize list novels have contributed most to my stack of unfinished titles (engendering thoughts of the Emperor’s new clothes). Perhaps. I am past battling with Avant Garde boundary-pushers throwing conventions of punctuation or paragraphs to the winds. Speech marks may be a ‘restrictive bourgeois construct’ (as once said by a university tutor) but I like my reading reasonably digestible, with clarity where action ends and conversation begins.
The number of books multiplies by the day as we authors churn out more stories. There are 6 million plus on Amazon. No wonder it is hard to find your ‘gem.’ And of course, everyone has different tastes. I may not care for depressing misery memoirs that others love, nor idealised romances that comfort some, and find bonkathons like Fifty Shades a turn off. My remaining decade or is too short to waste reading something for the sake of it, or the book of a TV series where I know the story. (Nor to watch a film of a book I’ve read which shatters my imagination: Omar Sharif is not Dr Zhivago nor Tom Cruise Jack Reacher!)
I follow bloggers and readers’ sites, but it is so time-consuming. While I can be happy to read books from writers that I’ve previously enjoyed and devour them like a well-loved chocolate bar, there is a time for finding one more like a fine wine: it is finding those where the problem lies. If I can’t have a bookshop organised by subject or alphabetical author (both can work) I need their websites with open online algorithms that will source me my next book. Imagine if you could enter say, 20 titles you’ve liked, choose a setting, time, even the sex of a main protagonist and specify humour, life-affirming or suspense and it would throw up something exciting! Instead, Amazon keeps suggesting I buy my own last book. I rest my case.
Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.