Monday, April 22, 2013

How to “read” a book before buying.

Zounds! Truth to tell, I’ve been waiting all my life to use this expletive in the right context. I remember it being an often-used favourite of Porthos in the Classic Comics/Classic Illustrated (the series died a long time back, I gather) rendition of The Three Musketeers (1941). It caught my eye – and my fancy – there rather than while reading the Cassel’s yellow-jacketed edition of the Dumas classic. My use of “Zounds!” in the present case is more than justified in my shrewd estimation. It expresses my feeling of delight at having resisted resolutely the temptation of using a clichéd heading for this post, e.g., “Never judge a book by its cover.” (Frankly, though, I’ve followed that advice profitably on several book buying expeditions.) This “Zounds” also gleefully acknowledges my having finally stumbled upon the opportunity to fearlessly write “Zounds!” As you can see, the brief and to-the-point title I chose has just the right tinge of intrigue added to it by the read in quotes. As it must have dawned on all my intelligent and perceptive readers  by now, I am about to deliver, in my capacity as a veteran book reader and bibliophile of long standing, a how-to-do-it-yourself sermon on picking really worthwhile books in a bookshop or a book sale. Skip it at your own peril, boys and girls, especially if you don’t want to live the rest of your life buying and reading trash.

Here, now then, in brief, is my modus operandi of book buying. Once I enter a book shop or a book sale and start browsing, I allow an attractive book cover or an alluring book title to catch my eye. If the book seems to be within the ambit of my varied and catholic interests – and limited budget (yes, I tend to be a somewhat price-conscious book shopper which explains my preference for Strand Book Stall and book sales which the late and lamented Arun Kolhatkar too used to frequent probably for the same reasons), I pick it up and read the blurb on the back cover and elsewhere. (Glancing furtively over my shoulder to make sure nobody’s looking; I also take a hurried whiff of its new-book “fresh from the press” fragrance. Fungal hallucinogens alert for those of you who crave the “old book aroma”: Research suggests that sniffing old books infested with fungi may give the unsuspecting sniffer a “high”.

I’m rather partial to relevantly catchy book titles, I must sheepishly confess. Maybe the copywriter in me is to blame for this blemish. Let me also add that, in most cases, I have not regretted falling for the alluring charms of such a come-hither. A recent example is my purchase of Martin Lindstrom’s Buy.ology (Random House, New York, 2009). The copywriter in me found the book utterly delightful and extremely enlightening – worth much more than the Rs.425/- less 20% price I shelled out for it in Strand Book Stall. Another rewarding purchase going merely by the front-cover names-dropping is Laurie Rozakis’ Comma Sutra (Adam Media Avon, Massachusetts, 2005), also from Strand. A third example is Patrick Scrivenor’s I Used to Know That ENGLISH (Michael O’Mara Books, London, 2010), bought in an Ashish Book Centre sale not so long ago.

I would be lying through my teeth were I to claim that I have never been laid astray by a tempting title. A glaring example is Stephen Markley’s Publish This Book (Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2010) that was tagged by the publisher promisingly as “Humour/Memoir” but turned out a dud and a drag and a waste of money and time. It is not badly written, mind you. It has its moments of genuine humour but is so stretched out that it tests the reader’s patience to the fullest extent without rewarding him commensurately in return. As the Good Bard would have likely said, “Much Ado about Nothing”, or rather nothing much! Could I, as an unpublished author, have wanted to share the agony of an about-to-be-published author’s rites of passage through purgatory?

If the blurb has whetted my appetite for further enlightenment, I go to the publication details which include the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and copyright information (in other words, the publishing history of the book in my hands). This is printed behind the title page also known as “verso”. I’m always interested in knowing when the book was first published and which edition of it I’m holding in my hands. I do possess quite a few first editions although I’m not a first-edition collector in the real sense. The price permitting, I prefer hardbound books to paperbacks; likewise, new to second-hand; likewise, genuine to contraband, i.e., pirated. (Recently, however, New York Times told me that a hardcover book’s spine could be an ideal hideaway for bedbugs and their eggs. The University of Washington Library was among the first few to discover this menace. Question: Could the bedbug menace be used to promote ebooks?)

What I usually do after reading the publication details is to turn to the back of the book looking for an index. Show me a book with an index in its tail and I will show you a book that’s brimming with its own importance as a future reference source. Jokes aside, I adore simply books with indexes. They’re mostly non-fiction, though. An index makes it easy for me to quickly locate those parts of a book that I enjoyed most when I first read it and which I now want to reread. An index, in other words, is akin to a Jurassic Park imitation of a website’s own internal search engine, after all. Other telling backend clues to the writer’s presentation skills and dedication to his subject are an appendix (or appendices), a compendium of footnotes, glossary and a further readings list.

For me, a cast-of-characters listing is a useful indicator of the likely quality of content. When there is a huge galaxy of characters populating a novel, it is a real help to have a reference point to which you can keep returning to reorient yourself if and when you have kind of lost your way in the narrative. Most reading – and, of course, performing – editions of plays have a cast-of-characters page by definition as it were. I fondly remember – and sorely miss – the early Ellery Queen mystery novels with their long cast of characters, a cast-of-characters listing to match and, last but not least, the challenge to the reader to name the murderer (or “the perp” in contemporary lingo) before the Master revealed all. Some of the early Agatha Christie novels had the c-o-c listings too. I used to own all those wonderful Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie mysteries mostly paperbacks. I can almost see those scrumptious Ellery Queens in their signature Penguin paperbacks in a green-with-a-white-centre-band jacket. Alas, I lost all that precious caché out of sheer carelessness. 

Before I say adieu, take a look at this: