Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Thirty-Four Books in an Hour

On Saturday afternoon, I stopped by the local Barnes & Noble for a book browsing experiment. I had been thinking about ways to learn a little about novels in a short amount of time. I thought: read just the first page. But first pages are often just half pages on the right-hand side. It would be a lot more fair to include the contents of the next two-page spread. So I decided to read the first three pages of as many books as would fit in an hour. What would grab my interest before the second page turn? Could I identify some reasons for hits and misses? Would people give me funny looks?

I picked the bland "Fiction & Literature" section (the etc/misc/non-genre section) that I normally only browse when I have an author in mind. There was an empty chair where the 'I-' authors began, so I grabbed the first book and sat down. Here are the results:
A hyperlink means I wanted to read the fourth page.
  1. Ice-T, Kings of Vice
  2. Conn Iggulden, Emperor: The Gates of Rome
  3. David Ignatius, Body of Lies
  4. David Ignatius, The Increment
  5. Greg Iles, 24 Hours
  6. Greg Iles, Black Cross
  7. Virginia Ironside, No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year
  8. John Irving, The 158-Pound Marriage
  9. John Irving, The Cider House Rules
  10. Susan Isaacs, Any Place I Hang My Hat 
  11. Susan Isaacs, As Husbands Go
  12. Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
  13. Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World 
  14. Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes
  15. Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkel, The Recipe Club
  16. Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation
  17. Jeremy Iversen, Rush
  18. Joshilyn Jackson, Backseat Saints
  19. Joshilyn Jackson, Between, Georgia
  20. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
  21. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle 
  22. Kate Jacobs, The Friday Night Knitting Club
  23. Roy Jacobsen, Child Wonder
  24. Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question 
  25. Howard Jacobson, The Mighty Walzer
  26. John Hornor Jacobs, This Dark Earth
  27. Howard Jacobson, No More Mr. Nice Guy
  28. John Jakes, The Bastard
  29. Henry James, The Ambassadors
  30. Syrie James, Dracula, My Love
  31. Ashley JaQuavis, The Trophy Wife
  32. Lola Jaye, Being Lara
  33. Rula Jebreal, Miral
  34. Gary Jennings, Aztec
Harsh, sure, but I wasn't trying to judge what other people might want to keep reading. In an age of so many novels, why not focus on the ones I personally find interesting? What else could literary value be if not the fact that a person, or a lot of people, or a lot of people of a certain type would find a work interesting if they were acquainted with it?

So why did I find some openings interesting and others not so much?

Ice-T's Kings of Vice had excellent atmosphere as it described a man choosing to walk from prison back to his neighborhood, but I wasn't hooked by the fact that the protagonist had been planning something big for when he was paroled. It could just be a robbery. *yawn* If not, I wish Ice-T had hinted at more. Lesson: Put a better lure on the hook.

Greg Iles' Black Cross was almost the same deal, except the cover makes it pretty clear that the something big has to do with Nazis. But, again, there's nothing in the first three pages to put a twist on Nazis.

John Irving's The 158-Pound Marriage piqued my interest because of the extreme gruesomeness of a past event, combined with the narrator's present marriage to the person in the earlier ordeal, combined again with the mysterious title. There's a lot going on here!

Susan Isaacs' Any Place I Hang My Hat tickled my sci-fi fancy. In a world...where weekly magazines of lengthy text-only articles can be popular. Ok, it's not really sci-fi but this at least counts as a fantasy, right?

Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist Of The Floating World had a definite mystery vibe. The narrator lives in a rich house because of some kind of contest-of-character put on by the previous owners.

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle was similar. At the top of page 2, "The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones that would stand forever on our kitchen shelf." Sold.

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question features a man who constantly and vividly fantasizes about things going wrong. Something has finally, actually gone wrong and I would complain about the vagueness, but the character is interesting enough that it almost wouldn't matter if the something turned out to be mundane to normal people.

What I want out of the first three pages is to see something happen that's interesting on its own yet promises more. Heck, it's the James Bond movie formula. The harder question I've begun wrestling with is: What do I want out of fiction in general? Why spend so much time with the stuff? I would welcome recommendations on the philosophy of literature, preferably from at least the time when novels were a thing. At some point I may need to make selections on behalf of library patrons; it would be nice to have a well-considered foundation for such decisions.

1 comment:

  1. I know this is old, but your last paragraph made me laugh. What do I want out of fiction? I'm not sure...let me find some philosophy on it.

    To be fair, I'm somewhat in the same boat myself. I know enough now to be able to spot good writing early on, and that makes it increasingly hard to read sci-fi and fantasy (which are my traditional favorites). By good here, I should point out that I'm talking more about quality of writing than what appeals to me personally. There are very talented authors whose characters I still can't relate to because of different life experiences and personalities.

    Just in passing, you might find the Malazan Book of the Fallan series by Steven Erikson to be interesting. He's got a great feel for archaeology and mythology, layering centuries of conflicts and whole civilizations within his books. His characters are wide and varied, from those you will despise to those you can't help but feel for. I was completely sold when I realized he had told a subplot in segments across three different books, neatly tying together cultures which had never met previously while making it so no one knew what was actually going on.