As with films and television, too much hype can ruin my enjoyment of a novel. I’m not generally talking about the top New York Times best sellers, books so popular that many avid readers can expect an equal and opposite reaction when it comes to their own enjoyment. Rather, I’m talking about classics and “modern classics,” books so talked up by people whose opinions you trust that when you finally read the book, you can objectively tell it’s good, but it can no longer possibly be as mind-blowing as expected. I often find myself going through a grieving process as I read books of this type, realising as each page is finished that, had I found the book before hearing anything about it, I would have loved it, but, having heard so many amazing reviews, I can now only see it as “good.” To this day I mourn the reading experiences I could have had with Crime and Punishment, Middlesex and Wuthering Heights, if only I’d known nothing about them going in.
On the flipside are the books that manage to exceed expectations, the ones somehow so brilliant that no matter how much hype I’ve heard, they still blow me away. These are the Margaret Atwoods, the John Greens, the David Mitchells and the Jonathan Franzens of my bookshelf, authors who have yet to disappoint.
Still, perhaps the most satisfying yet are the truly unexpected treasures, the début authors or writers I’ve just never heard of, who, picked up on a whim or from a single friend’s mention, turn out to be astonishing. These are books that, to quote John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars “[fill] you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read [this] book.” For me, these books usually involve discovering amazing use of language in genres I love, but that are not typically extolled for this particular virtue. Key examples are Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (young adult fantasy) and The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker (rather violent epic fantasy).
There are days when I think that perhaps I should stop reading reviews, cut myself off from the various sources by which a book obtains the label “much lauded.” Perhaps, for me, the “book discovery problem” isn’t so much about how to make the reader aware of a book, but how to protect the reader from too much awareness. When I was a child, I never knew what new novels I would encounter on trips to the bookstore. I simply picked up whatever looked interesting and, if the blurb and first five pages captured me, I brought it home. As a book blogger surely I’m contributing to the problem, adding hype to the novels dearest to my heart in a way that may lead other readers to disappointment? And yet I find I can’t help myself, can’t keep quiet. Let me tell you about what I just read…