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The fitful art and science of deciding what novel to read next.

September 28, 2010

Ford Madox Ford, inventor of the p99 challenge.

How to decide whether to read a novel? My colleague Connie Ogle and I recently discovered we use the same inefficient method: Reading the first 50 pages. Better ways surely exist. Now Robert McCrum suggests the “p99 challenge,” which sounds like an infomercial weight-loss program.

I don’t know about Connie, book critic for the Miami Herald, but during the years I served in the same capacity for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, I devised a number of short-cut strategies, almost all  premised on that most primal of human cognitive tools: the hunch.

Just like you, I read the jacket copy. I look at the author’s photo. I consult the bleeding entrails of a chicken.

Fortunately, you can, I’ve found, judge a book by its cover if a) you’re deciding it’s something you want to read, not whether it’s actually any good; and b) you don’t mind being wrong a lot of the time.

Example: Ingrid Betancourt’s new book, Even Silence Has an End (nonfiction, true, but it’s the handiest example) is repellantly ugly: It’s cover an oppressive sequence of black-and-green bands. The typeface tiny, spindly and uninviting. A dense pound cake of a book, it’s deceptively packed with Bible-thin pages, as if the publisher wants to fool us into thinking it’s a 300-page book, when it actually runs to 528.

Fortunately I had an incentive to keep reading: It’s an important book and I wanted to write about it. Betancourt, a French-Columbian journalist-turned-politican, writes forcefully about the six years she was held hostage by rebels in Columbia.

In a charming essay over at the Guardian, Robert McCrum extols the “p99 challenge,” invented by Ford Maddox Ford, author of the classic novel The Good Soldier. Ford advised: “Open the book to page 99 and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

Ahhh…right, Mr. Ford. All due respect (which is to say, a great deal), I’m skeptical. As a reader context is important to me, and how the hell am I supposed to know what’s going on on page 99 if I haven’t read the preceding 98?

McCrum writes winningly in favor of the p99 challenge, gently disparaging the popular read-the-first-line method employed by most habitues of most book shops. “Why not look at a book once it has cleared it throat, and is under way?”

His essay is full of clever phrases like that, some McCrum’s, some borrowed from others, like poet Philip Larkin, who “once observed, having judged the Booker prize, that many British novels were just ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end.'”

But entertaining though McCrum may be, I am unconvinced. We’re talking novels here, or in the case of Ingrid Betancourt, narrative nonfiction. I read these kinds of books primarily for narrative — the story, yes, but also the rhythms with which it’s told: the gallop, the canter, the lope, the crawl (and, of course, the crawl is often more satisfying than the gallop).

Turning to page 99 to taste a book is like leaping on a carousel in the middle of the ride — not impossible, but awkward, disorienting, more apt to be unpleasant than otherwise.

So I’ll continue to judge my books by their covers and practice the first-50-pages method (though in truth often only five pages are required, sometimes only five words). I suppose some things in life cannot be reduced to a scientific method (thank God!). But if someone can share I better ways to pick novels to read, I will be very grateful to hear them.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Karwacki permalink
    September 29, 2010 7:23 am

    Trust a friend, or dare I say, even a critic. “What are you reading? How is it? Thanks for the thumbs up or down.” I have been turned on to some great stuff over the years with only a couple letdowns.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 29, 2010 10:25 am

      Word of mouth is always the best way to pick a new book to read. For critics like Connie and me, though, that’s not usually a useful strategy. We’re the first ones to read the thing.

  2. September 29, 2010 12:08 pm

    The old fashioned 50 page test works best for me. Of course, there are times I can’t get past the first page or the 10th. But a novel generally has to build up, “clear its throat,” as you say, and I feel obligated to give the writer every chance I can. I refuse to write nasty reviews, so if I can’t get into a book I’m asked to review, I put it down and move on and don’t say anything.

  3. Connie permalink
    September 29, 2010 1:17 pm

    I’m intrigued by this p99 idea; I’m going to test it out. It seems like it wouldn’t work at all. Maybe I’ll try it on books I love first. Just to see.

    As you so rightly point out, judging a book by the cover can go badly awry. I was intrigued by the cover of Tom McCarthy’s “C”, one of the Booker nominees this year, and in fact every designer who passed my desk stopped and looked at it. But trying to get to page 50 was like hacking my way through the bamboo in my front yard after a good rain: quite the slog.

    There are some people I trust when they recommend something to me. They’re almost invariably people who know me well and have discussed books with me at some time and so have a fairly good idea of what I might like. They know not to say, “You should read this 600 page book on the beauty of baseball – it’s amazing!”

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