Thursday, February 03, 2005

What to read next?

Gregg Hurwitz, author of last year’s terrific thriller The Program, brings up an interesting question on his blog: how do we decide which books we’re going to read?

I have to make this decision every couple of days. (I try to read 3 books a week, plus whatever false starts I suffer through.) On rare occasions, the selection is made for me, as when I'm reviewing a book on assignment, or am appearing on a panel with someone and need to read their book first.

Usually, though, the decision is up to me. I’m never wanting for choices, as I have more books than any ordinary person could read in a lifetime. However, that doesn’t mean the selection is always an easy one. In addition to finding something entertaining, I have the added pressure of not just reading for myself, but for potential review as well.

Sometimes the choice is obvious. If a new book by Lawrence Block or Michael Connelly or some other author who is a favorite of mine comes in, I will usually read it as soon as I can. I’m not very good at delaying gratification. (Christmas mornings were always a bitch for me.)

Most of the time, though, it’s harder than that. I usually have a vague idea of what I want to read in the future, whether it’s something I’m already considering for my next column, or the next book in a series I’ve enjoyed; a new author I’ve heard good things about, or just something that caught my eye.

On the shelves next to my desk, I currently have 62 advanced galleys and 29 finished hardbacks that passed my initial sort. When I receive books (I don’t keep count but it must be at least 100 or so every month), I immediately sort them into two categories: “might read” and “won’t read.” All of the books on these shelves are in the “might read” category. (The rest are stacked in teetering piles on the other side of my office.)

(And, yes, I realize that this is the scariest part for authors – basically, your book has one chance to make the cut and, after that, probably won’t be considered again. I know it sounds harsh, but, considering the huge volume of submissions I receive, there’s really no way around it.)

Many of the books in the “might read” category never make it out of that pile to actually be read. I try my best to read as many as I can, but things like my day job and my beautiful wife keep getting in the way.

So which one to pick next?

I try to read new writers whenever possible, especially debut novels. There’s nothing as exciting as discovering a fresh new voice, so I’m always on the hunt. I’m also drawn to books that seem to be trying something new or different. So many of the books that get published are simply variations on a theme (alcoholic PI battles his demons while doggedly solving a case, idealistic young lawyer takes on the system to prove a person’s innocence, etc.). If an author is trying to do something fresh, I like to give them a chance.

I also like to read series, so if a book is the third or fourth entry in a series that’s supposed to be good, that’s something I would look at. On the other hand, I’m just as likely to insist upon reading the series from the beginning, in order, which means I might have to hunt down book number one. That also mean I’m reluctant to start a new series if there are already 10 books out. I just don’t have to time to catch up.

I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the mystery community, including reviewers, publicists, writers and fans, so I get a lot of recommendations from friends. A lot of what I read is influenced by what they say. (Something I can’t stress enough to fledgling mystery writers is that word of mouth is crucial in this business.)

A much as anything else, I think, it depends on mood. What kind of book do I feel like reading? If I feel like some suspense, I’ll select the latest “pulse-pounding thriller” from the “next Robert Ludlum.” Or if I feel like a little mystery, I’ll pick up a detective novel that looks good, especially if the investigator is not another broken-down loser or psychic cat.

If I need a good laugh, I’ll choose something that’s supposed to be funny (and almost inevitably be disappointed, as funny mysteries are usually anything but). Or if I feel like a trip around the world, I’ll grab an international thriller set in Berlin, Bangkok or Bangladesh.

It’s hardly a scientific process, or even a particularly structured one. Ultimately, it comes down to what catches my eye. Maybe it’s the brief description of the plot, or the setting; maybe it’s an interesting day job for the protagonist, or a blurb from another writer whose recommendation I respect. Hell, maybe it’s a cool title or interesting book design.

Or occasionally, when all else fails, I will fall back on the tried and true, burying myself in the comfortable confines of a book I already know that I’ll like. Maybe a Ross Thomas, Thomas Perry or Robert Ferrigno. Maybe an old Spenser novel or early Matt Scudder. As much as I feel pressured to read new stuff, and the pressure is definitely there, the lure of the “good old stuff” is always very strong.

The nice thing about books is, if you don’t like the one you’re reading, there’s always a dozen more waiting in the wings. Remember Montgomery’s Law: Life is too short to read bad books!