When I walk into a bookstore like Borders or Barnes & Noble, I'm immediately assaulted with "New in Paperback", "New in Hardcover", "New Fiction", "New Non-Fiction", "New Biography", "Staff Recommendations", "Local Authors" and other such sections. There was a time that the "New" sections were relatively small, but these days, you're looking at 40 books in each of the "New" categories, minimum. "New in Paperback" probably has double that, at least in the bookstore I walked into on Friday.
If I'm not looking for a specific title and I just want to browse, I have a number of things I can rely on: friends' recommendations, whether I've heard of an author before, whether the book is on the staff recommendations list, whether the title sounds interesting, what genre the book is, how prominently the title is displayed, how many copies are in stock (this tells a lot about what the store projects the potential sales of the book to be, particularly for new titles), and yes, sadly, whether the cover draws me in. If I've never heard of a book or its author and the title doesn't tell me enough information, I have a choice to make: do I pick the book up and read the back cover or inside jacket? I'd like to read all the back covers, at least of those whose titles or genres don't completely turn me off, but if I picked up every single book in the "New in Paperback" section and read even the first two sentences of the blurb, I'd have spent all afternoon in the bookstore on Frid
ay. As it was, I spent 45 minutes, just enough to get to the store and back to my office within an hour.
So how do I decide whether I've got the time to read the blurb? Absent some other recommendation from a friend or colleague, the cover is what helps me decide. I used to be ashamed of this, and would intentionally pick up books whose covers repulsed me, just to prove that the cover didn't affect my book choice, but the cover always affected my bias as I read the blurb. Should I get it? Will I be embarassed to be seen reading a book with this cover on the subway? (okay, I don't ride the subway anymore, but that's not the point) And so, I pick up books whose covers either interest me, or which speak to me in some other way.
It's interesting to see what things on a cover can draw me in. I tend toward simplicity in color and design, but not always. Sometimes it is the font of the title that draws me in, or the use of colour on the page. Often it is the texture and material used for the cover. Glossy covers don't draw me in as quickly as matte finished covers, for some reason. Muted colours are more likely to draw my attention than flourescent or primary colours. Simple, clean lines will draw my eyes faster than swirls and lightning bolts. A small, well-placed photograph might draw my eye, but a full photo cover is less likely to, unless it is rendered in some artistic fashion. Anything too busy is likely to leave me wondering if I should bother.
And so, having found a cover which appeals to me, I read the back cover. If the back cover interests me enough, I might read a page or two, though not necessarily the first two pages. I'll likely skim the first paragraph. It's always hardest for me to read the first couple of pages of a book, though, even of my very favorite books, so I'll also skim a page in the middle, after the author has found his or her groove, so to speak. I skim less for content and more for language use... does the author use clear, but interesting, language? Is the style flowery or technical or simple or poetic? Is there interesting vocabulary? And, oddly, how does the format of the page appeal to me? What font is it? How large are the margins, how much white space on the page? Does the author use standard grammar and formatting conventions, or are they using language in some unique way? (No right answer here, folks... Frank McCourt doesn't use standard conventions, but rather a stream-of-cons
ciousness style that works for him... were another author to try to mimic his style, I might find it difficult to follow, but for McCourt it works... so no right answer, but it's still something I check out)
And then, having passed my cursory inspection, I have to decide: Do I get the book, or do I leave it behind. Even if I were in a library, rather than a bookstore, so that I could afford unlimited book options, I have to remember that my time itself is limited. I don't WANT to pick up a book I won't enjoy. I've certainly purchased my share of dull or annoying books. But I'm pretty good at spotting a few gems per visit.
Book choices have gotten harder as I've gotten older... It's hard to define my taste by genre alone; I don't have a favorite author specifically; there are a LOT more books to choose from. Too many choices, but how amazing and wonderful that we DO have so many choices! If I've received a strong recommendation from a friend, I probably won't even notice the cover. But if I have to pick a book with no other cues, I definitely judge a book by its cover, even when I don't intend to. How about you?