Lucky dip reading

Saw a good post on the Guardian website about “lucky dip” reading – buying a book you know absolutely nothing about. It makes the valid point that people who shop online are less likely to stumble on new books than they would if they were browsing a bookshop. That’s certainly been my experience – I’ve never just randomly browsed on Amazon in the way I would in a bookshop. I just log on, buy what I want and log off again. Perhaps that will change, though, as online bookshops improve their designs and use better technology to approximate the real-life bookshop experience.

A separate question, though – is “lucky dip” reading a good thing? I actually used to do quite a lot of it when I was younger. I never really read newspaper reviews, and in those days there were no book blogs or social networking sites like Goodreads or Librarything. I don’t really remember getting recommendations from friends very much either. So I more or less just walked into bookshops and chose books based on the cover or the blurb. I read randomly.

I suppose I discovered some good books that way, although my memory’s so awful that none spring to mind. But I know I also wasted a lot of time on mediocre books or ones that just weren’t really my area of interest.

These days I put much more effort into deciding which books I want to read. I have long lists of books to be read, based on reviews or recommendations, and I work my way through them. I do have the occasional surprise – in Barbados recently I finished all the books I’d taken with me, so picked up a few that my in-laws had lying around in their living room, and enjoyed all of them – Commonwealth Short Stories, West Indian Folk Tales and Global Shift. And in bookshops I sometimes just buy something based on whim, especially in second-hand bookshops (I love rummaging through those bargain bins outside full of faded yellowing books at £1 or 50p each!).

But in general, I am more organised now, and I like it. I rarely read a book that I thought was a waste of time. And I do come across a wide range of titles in my time spent on the internet reading other people’s reviews and recommendations. So I’m not convinced of the merits of lucky dip reading – although I am definitely convinced of the superiority of a good independent bookshop over the online shopping experience.

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There are 6 comments

  1. Same here. I used to just pick books at random before I started blogging. I loved going to the library and perusing the shelves. Loved picking up books from the newly arrived section. Some of the books I enjoyed this way, without knowing anything about them beforehand, were Q&A by Vikas Swarup, What is the What by Dave Eggers, The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore. Now with book blogs and online reviews rampant, there are so many recommendations I want to get to, so like you nowadays I tend to give much more thought to which books to read. The less time wasted, the better.

  2. I used to be a lucky dip reader – mainly at University because I was particularly interested in contemporary fiction which we weren’t reading as part of my English degree. I discovered Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland, Philip Carey, Will Self – all sorts, this way. But these days, like you and Claire, I often feel overwhelmed by the hugeness of the list of things I want to read… and when we’re writing too it limits our reading time. I run a book club in my home city so once a month I read something usually quite unexpected. This month we’re reading Catch 22 – we do read the odd classic and I generally enjoy the change.

    I get massive pleasure from second hand books too. I recently read ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by RJ Ellory that I picked up for £1.50 in a charity shop. I do feel slightly guilty reading second hand books though in that the author doesn’t get any pennies… and as an aspiring author I know how hard it is to make money! Do you feel guilty about this too?

  3. Those are some pretty good lucky dip discoveries, Helen and Claire! Maybe it’s not so bad after all! Helen, I don’t really feel guilty about buying second hand books – usually the ones I buy this way are older books that are out of print, so there’d be no way to reward the author. Speaking for myself, I primarily want people to read my book and talk about it. I’m happy for them to buy second hand or borrow from a friend or the library. Of course I want to make money, but I try to think long-term – if someone reads my book for free, but then blogs about it or reviews it or recommends it to a dozen other people who buy it, then it pays off in the end.

  4. I’m a lucky-dip reader through and through. My main reasoning for this is that I don’t like to read reviews, I find so many of them tell me more than I want to know. I find I get a lot more out of not knowing anything about a book than if I did know. I don’t even like to read the back of a book before I read it.
    The one which sticks out is actually quite famous as it turns out, though it had somehow escaped my attention completely, and was “Arthur and George” by Julian Barnes. What pleased me about not knowing anything about it was that it took me until about the 70th page before I realised that Arthur was the Conan Doyle variety. That, I would have discovered on the first line on the back of the book, and yet it was a much more pleasing discovery finding it in the meat of the book.

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