The other week I picked up a stand-alone novel by an author whose prior trilogy I had absolutely loved. The first few pages of the new novel were captivating and I looked forward to an equally engrossing experience. However, as the book progressed, things took a turn and I soon realised that while the story had many positive qualities, it didn’t speak to me the same way the author’s prior work had. Talking later to a friend who hadn’t read the trilogy and had really liked the new book, I realised one thing which may have impeded my enjoyment was the expectation the author’s other work had instilled in me.
Looking at my reading life since, I’ve identified many instances when a book’s failure to meet my (perhaps unreasonable) expectations has kept me from truly enjoying it. Each of these seems to fall into one of the following categories:
1. The book is by an author whose other work I’m already obsessed with
2. The book has received massive positive media attention (for “positive media attention” also read “has been talked up in all the right Young Adult Novel-focused blogs”) and/or major awards
3. The book has been identified as amazing by a friend (or friends) whose opinion is usually in line with my own
4. The book has been blurbed or lauded by one of my favourite authors
Having identified these categories as problematic I find myself at a quandary as they are a near complete overlap with my main methods of choosing which books to read.
Thinking about it more, I realise that I’ve been (somewhat unconsciously) editing my intake of detailed information on new books for some time. When looking at posts and social media I tend to avoid long summaries and I’m especially wary of rave reviews. While the web has made many parts of the book discovery process easier and faster (in addition to providing a portal through which I can muse weekly on the reading life), there is a part of me that misses the purely tactile and visual book discovery of my childhood — when choosing the next book always meant a trip to our local bookstore and a good hour running my fingers over spines, reading covers and the first five pages. This was the way I first encountered many old favourites: Robin McKinley and Diane Duane, Susan Cooper and Ursula K. Le Guin, Garth Nix and Philip Pullman. No matter how many hands had been involved in bringing those authors’ titles to the shelves, I always felt as if I were the one discovering them. Each new book came to me unburdened by any information that couldn’t fit on the back cover.
Don’t get me wrong – I love my social reading sites and the wide availability of web and print reviews. If I had the chance to go back to life without them, I wouldn’t. But, I’m now mindful of the expectations these media and other sources (even friends’ recommendations and my own prior experience with an author) establish and I’ve resolved that whether good or bad, I will do my best to let these expectations go each time I open a cover and turn to page one.