A Blank Slate Approach
In a Library Loot vlog earlier this month, I mentioned that a lot times I request a book with no idea what it’s about. And Jenny left a comment wondering why I would do that. So I’d already planned on writing this post today, and then I began The Hunchback of Notre Dame and read this in Elizabeth McCracken’s introduction:
The fact is, most novels, great and bad, are best read in a state of near ignorance. You are always more easily and pleasantly seduced-even by a brilliant seducer-without the voice of your mother or your eighth-grade English teacher in your ear. Perhaps the only proper introduction for a Great Novel is: Reader, here is your book. Book, here is your reader.
Aren’t little bookish coincidences fun? I agree wholeheartedly with what McCracken says here (I can’t wait to read the rest of her introduction once I’ve finished the novel): I find that the less I know about a (fiction) book beforehand, the more it can delight me.
But how do I got about selecting books to read if I don’t know what they’re about? In some cases, it’s easy! When I requested The Evil Genius from the library, all I knew was that it was written by Wilkie Collins. That’s all I needed to know: for authors who I’ve read and loved in the past, I like diving into other books by them completely blind. The other easy case for me is stumbling across an author from a more ‘obscure’ country, especially if that author is an older one. Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar, a book I’ll be talking about tomorrow, popped up in a random library catalogue search I did: upon seeing the author’s 1921 birth year in the ‘more information’ tab, I put it on hold, no questions asked. That’s just because I tend to connect better with older books, and I love ‘seeing’ things through the eyes of an author from a different culture. So even if I end up not loving the book, I’m usually happy that I’ve read it. The approach of learning a bit about the author, but leaving the book itself a mystery, is one I’ve had great success with.
In other cases, I know a little more about the book, usually its setting and ‘genre,’ or style if you would. That’s what I know about most of the books I read due to other bloggers! When I start reading a post about a book, and realise it’s a book that sounds appealing, I’ll kind of glaze my eyes over any mention of the plot and just read the blogger’s reactions to the book (I usually go back and reread the post once I’ve read the book). The only time I will get anywhere near a publisher’s blurb is when I’m putting a booklist together. In this case, since I’m creating them as a resource for others as well as myself, I like to include a brief sketch of what the book’s about (i.e.: why I’m putting it on the list). But since I tend to look at a lot of books in a short time when making those lists, I don’t remember many details about any of the titles when I go to actually read one of them. So I still go in with the bare minimum of information! I think it’s easier to do that since I get almost all of my books from the library: if I begin a book and realise it’s not for me, I can return it without any twinge about the money I spent on it or worries about a commitment to review. Anyway, I like to know as little as possible so that I limit my expectations. In the past, I’ve found that expectations can get in the way of enjoying a book.
As you might have guessed by now, I prefer blogs that provide spoiler warnings. Although I think the word itself is incredibly unfortunate, I really dislike accidentally discovering the plot of a novel, or its ending, while innocently blog hopping. I try to keep myself in a bubble to avoid knowing the plots of classics too, which is why I don’t read print columns about books (which have a habit of airily referencing sad or dramatic endings of the classics in particular) and approach any volume of literary criticism/essays on books with a certain amount of trepidation. As you might have gathered from my opening, I never read the introduction to a classic before reading the classic itself; I’ve learned the hard way that the introduction almost always includes a summary of the entire plot. It’s not that I think the plot is the most important part of a book (for my reading style, it just isn’t), and as I said in my post on rereading, part of what I love about revisiting a book is not worrying about the plot. But at the same time, for my introduction to a new novel, I want to experience the book the way the author meant it to be experienced, for the story to unfold at the author’s chosen pace, and for the ending to feel as inevitable or as shocking as she chooses. And that goes for whether a book was published last month or last century.
This, of course, affects how I write about books on my blog: as much as possible, I’ll just ignore the plot, or give the briefest of sketches. If I want to talk more about it, I always preface that discussion so readers like myself know to skip to the next paragraph (and even then I’ll only talk about things that occur in the first quarter of the book or so). At times, do I feel frustrated by this? You bet; I didn’t talk about a lot of what I thought made Purge such an incredible novel, because I think it’s something readers need to discover for themselves. But here’s the thing: once I’ve read a book, I can always e-mail other bloggers who have read it and have spoilerific discussions to my heart’s content. Does my attempt to keep my writing about a particular book general make my blog more shallow? Probably, but it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make. When I post about a favourite book, I’m trying to convince others to read it; I’m not trying to demonstrate any powers of literary perception. But that’s a topic for another day. ;)
Over to you: how much do you want to know about a book before reading it? How do you decide which books to read? How do you handle blogging about plot points? And can any of you think of a better word than ‘spoiler’?