Getting Back to Judging Books by Their Covers

I often find myself thinking about how things used to be. How they used to be before the advent of the Internet, social networks, and instant access to just about anything. This way of thinking lies behind the existence of this blog and many of the things that interest me. And one thought that I have been pondering recently is the idea of book discovery and how it has changed since my early years of loving books.

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Thinking back to those “olden days” of my tweens and early teen years, I have so many fond memories of time spent looking at books. Whether I was at one of the local libraries or more often, at one of our mall bookstores, I loved to look at the books. I would pull them from the shelves and admire the covers and anxiously read the blurbs and descriptions on the back or inside the flap on the hardcovers. I was always on the hunt for my next read, for that next great fantasy or science fiction story that would sweep me away.

During this time, the mid-1980s, there was no Internet, there was no Goodreads or Reddit. Pretty much all I had to go on to choose my next story were the books themselves. Occasionally a friend might recommend something but that was rare, as I was a bit of a loner in my love of books. I distinctly remember discovering the Xanth series by Piers Anthony in a library, because they sounded so whimsical and fun. I discovered the sword and sorcery of David Eddings’ Belgariad on those same shelves. Perhaps my favorite series of all time, the Dragonlance Chronicles, was first stumbled upon at a Waldenbooks in the Gainesville, FL mall because they had beautifully illustrated dragons on the covers. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. The list goes on and on.

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Flash forward thirty years and the way I discover new books has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily for the better. Now I have access to more book recommendation engines than I know what to do with. Amazon and Goodreads use complex algorithms to suggest books based on my history. Reddit has some fantastic book subreddits like the r/fantasy, where kind people will suggest what might be your next great read. But what I have noticed is that these things are making the process less enjoyable somehow, less serendipitous. I have become so consumed with “Will I love this?” rather than just taking a chance and giving it a go based on the fantastic cover or a well-written blurb. The fact is, my success rate with enjoying books has actually gotten worse while utilizing all these seemingly great resources. I have abandoned more “recommended” books in the last ten years because I just didn’t like them than I have in my entire life up to that point. I wonder why that is?

I want to take more chances. I want to teach my kids to do the same as they read and hopefully fall in love with reading. Just wander around, pull them off the shelf, look for a cover that triggers something and maybe, take a chance.