Terry Prone: Don't judge a book by its cover — unless of course it's an actual book

Terry Prone: Don't judge a book by its cover — unless of course it's an actual book

US author Stephen King poses for photographers at a book signing event. Picture: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Should you be of the belief that all shops are basically the same, that each is no more than a variation of the retail theme, you need to know you are profoundly wrong. 

One kind of shop is in stark contrast to all the others, as proven by the fact that nobody, as you check your purchases in Tesco, has ever picked up a cauliflower and stroked it gently while saying “You’re going to love this. I did.” 

That happens only in bookstores.

Most other shops just want you to buy as much as you can afford or more and then get the hell out. Bookshops want you to be part of their secret cult of book-loving folk. If you buy more than the expected number of books, they pat the bag approvingly as they do the handover, murmuring something about your weekend being properly sorted. 

Bookshops are quiet and orderly and other than the three for two signs on the tables at the front, they don’t shout selling messages at you.

Standing in a bookshop with my sister last week, I lifted a promising title for her reaction. “Definitely not,” she snapped, which came as a surprise, since I know the author to be an old favourite of hers. 

That’s one of the characteristics of book lovers, by the way. We are not models of fidelity, but once we fall in love, we do tend to commit, embracing the latest offering from the loved author with full, if not always fulfilled, confidence that it will be worth it. I examined the rejected book to see if its cover carried a clue which might explain my sister’s rejection of it. 

Nope. I looked a question.

“It’s a HARDBACK,” she hissed. My sister is the only person I know who can vocalise italics, bold print and capitals together in one whisper. “So?”I asked. “So if you read in bed, you go to sleep and it falls heavily on your face and wakes you up again.” I thought, but didn’t say, that she must read very low in the bed. 

If I were to fall asleep while reading a heavy hardback, the only sufferer from my grip weakening on the volume would be the cat.

Avocados and authors' praise

It did strike me, though, that the anti-hardback rule is only the beginning when it comes to book buying. You have to do your on-the-spot research. Like squeezing an avocado in the supermarket to ensure that the fruit labeled “Ripe/ready to eat” doesn’t break your knife/teeth when you get it home. 

The first thing you need to check out is the praise from other authors. If the adulation contains the word “luminous” you need to leave the book right there, because it’s going to be one of those stories where nothing happens at length other than the weather, which is drizzly.

More important than the choice of words, though, is the pedigree of the writers providing the two sentences of validation. If Writer A is on the cover of Writer B’s novel, describing it as a cracking good read, a minor masterpiece or a lesson to less authors, you might be impressed by this. 

You might be less impressed if you realised that the two writers share a publisher and it is seen as corporate disloyalty not to provide a plug for Writer B since the publisher was good enough to publish Writer A.

But in addition, some writers are just big softies. I suspect that if you knocked on Marian Keyes’ door and claimed to have written a book, she’d give you a plug right there just to encourage you. Lee Child and Stephen King are not far behind in their promiscuous generosity. So — sweet as they are — you have to be careful about taking their word for it that this book in your hand in the shop is worth shelling out for. 

Other caveats including not trusting any writer who has to be introduced on the cover of another writer’s book. You see a plug from Stephen King, you know who he is and what he’s written. It’s quite different if you see a plug from Martina McNisbet with a line underneath her name saying she’s the author of Healing the Shattered Heart Pain. If they have to tell you what the person wrote, stands to reason that person didn’t become a household name through writing it. 

Finally, when you’re looking at the plugs on the cover, make sure they’re gender-mixed. Tells you a lot about a book if the plugs come only from women or only from men and I refuse to elaborate on this in the interests of my own safety.

St Francis of Assisi was a great man

Not that you should confine yourself to the covers, when you’re picking your books for the back garden this summer. The other test is the random opening. St Francis of Assisi was a great man for randomly opening the Bible as a way of finding out what he should do. One day, with a pal who was thinking of joining him in poverty and service of the poor, they opened the Bible in several places at random and everywhere they opened it, found a call to abandon wealth and serve the impoverished.

I’ve always had doubts about this yarn, because those calls happen only in the gospels and there’s a lot of Bible either side of the Gospels, so I figure they were aiming for certainties. On the other hand, if you open a book at random in two separate places and find the historic past tense (“He had often wondered about her reaction to that broken leg”) everywhere, put the book down. It will have the pace of a hangover, and as we all know, there’s no rushing a hangover.

Those little bent cards from bookstore staff are so annoying when they say “If you loved The Girl on the Train, this is for you,” as if you were afraid to buy anything unfamiliar. The author’s name, huge on the cover, carries that implication, too: you liked Joe Bloggs’ last bestseller, so his latest will be the same, slightly refreshed. 

Bombing Germany

The one book currently on the tables at the front of bookshops of which this is decidedly not true is The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Allen Lane. Gladwell’s earlier books are collections of psychological Smarties. 

Author Malcolm Gladwell speaks onstage during OZY Fest in New York City. Picture: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Ozy Media
Author Malcolm Gladwell speaks onstage during OZY Fest in New York City. Picture: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Ozy Media

Highly entertaining to read, but leave little trace other than phrases like “the tipping point” and “thinslicing”. His new volume, in contrast, is a history of the approach taken by the Allies to the bombing of Germany during WWII, with detailed portrayals of the key military leaders, like Curtis LeMay, who led that campaign. Great read.

Nothing is as satisfying as watching a bookseller fit one of their big bags inside another, the better to take the weight of your many purchases. Other than reading them, of course. And passing on a few recommendations — but that’s for next week.

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