Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Judging Books By Their Covers

Return to Joen, 2010

There is little that compares to the indulgence of walking into a bookstore or library and leisurely browsing. Contrary to what we've all been told, I've had tremendous luck judging books by their covers (front & back). Sometimes I even judge by size.

I recently spent some time in a chain bookstore, one I typically pass with an upturned nose. They had such wonderful displays of books throughout the store. These displays went far beyond what was new, best selling, or on sale. There were collections of Short Stories, a display of Books You've Always Meant to Read, and a selection prepared specifically for National Poetry Month. I wish I could share some of the other fabulous displays they created, but I was more focused on jotting down book names than display names. Sorry about that.

After just completing a short story limited to 600 words, I was particularly intrigued by works described as written in deceptively simple language, bare-bones prose style, and exquisitely distilled. Descriptions such as toppling the myth of the moral superiority of small-town life, genuinely tragic and beautiful, and a feminist landmark, this big, ambitious novel... also caught my attention.

I was introduced to The Lottery several years ago and have been meaning to read more Shirley Jackson for quite some time now. Thomas Ott's cover helped me recall this desire. Although I've read several scathing reviews of Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories, I still find myself strangely drawn to the book. It looks entertaining.

I didn't walk out of this specific chain with any books under my arm, but I did write down a list of books I'd like to read in the near future.

Anything you'd like to add (or subtract)?

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Thomas Ott (Illustrator)

The Lottery and Other Stories also by Shirley Jackson

The Drinker by Hans Fallada

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
Picador; 1 edition (March 30, 2010)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Raymond Carver

The October Country by Ray Bradbury

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker
Penguin Classics (December 31, 2002)


  1. Louise Erdrich's collection of short stories - The Red Convertible - has been captivating and haunting. I've also been reading a lot of Isabel Allende for a class which I've loved. I only have a month left of college and then I get to actually read for enjoyment again... I can NOT wait. I'll definitely keep an eye on the list that grows here and keep it in mind.

  2. Ohh this is a gift from heaven...or at least from overseas. I have two more books lined up that I want to read, but then my list is empty. Your list came at the right time. I hope I can find these books in Norway.

    The description of your book store visit makes me feel I was there, or at least want to be there. I can almost smell the coffee from my imaginary coffee shop in the book store

  3. What a delightful time to get to spend a few minutes with you at the bookstore..! I loved it. And I love your list - if only I could be as determined and follow through with these kinds of things... After your description, I am completely curious about Shirley Jackson now... Hmmmm...

    Anyway - so glad about the succinct short story, dear. So very glad. :)


  4. being a librarian, i always feel like a spy or traitor when i browse in a bookstore. even being surrounded by books all day, i always find new titles that excite me. i learned to bring along a small pad of paper, or my cell phone so i can text book titles to myself.

    i did a summer of shirley jackson in my teenage years. the haunting of hill house and we have always lived in the castle are really amazing and atmospheric.

  5. Makes me want to go to a book store and spend hours browsing :)
    I do that too...write titles down on crumpled pieces of paper from the bottom of my purse for future reference or so I can get them from the library.

  6. "things fall apart" is one of my favorites.

  7. Oooh the _Book of Imaginary Beings_...that's going on my list to get!!
    Two books I love that I have sitting next to me: _Wallace Stevens The Collected Poetry_ and _The Poetics of Space_ (Bachelard)

  8. Have you ever read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson?

    It's a collection of short stories about some people living in a small town. The stories are beautiful and...human.

    Slim volume but one of my favorite books ever.

  9. Having time to spend browsing in bookshops is perhaps my favourite thing in the world, there's something so incredible about going along the shelves, taking a volume and flicking through the pages, letting your eyes skip from one line to another. I don't know everything on your list but I love Dorothy Parker, Raymond Carver and Hans Fallada. Sounds like some good choices.

  10. I have little lists all over my house with books that I want to read, and also love having the blissful time free to wander around a bookstore. Being an artist, I'm a big believer in judging a book by its cover. If it doesn't visually appeal to me, you'd have a hard time making me read it.

    Alice Munro is my favourite short story author - love to read yours!

    (thanks for popping by...)

  11. I find there is a balance with having chain bookstores and indie bookshops...both are needed and useful. This is a wonderful list. I'm still on a Hemingway kick myself, Colm Toibin, and hoping to dive into Zadie Smith's essay book. Wonderful post as always.

  12. Great list - I'm adding a few to my reading list! And I love your bookstore story. As much as I love independent bookstores, I can spend hours in pretty much any bookstore...... Have a lovely weekend.

  13. Well Denise, we have very similar taste in literature! And so funny because I was just at the library for the first time in years (shameful to admit) and was blown away by all of the awesome and very current titles. I wiled away a few hours and was amazed to leave with a small armload of books...for free.

    So I concur with your list. Love Ray Bradbury. I'd add anything by Alice Monroe, Elizabeth Graver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rick Moody (not for everyone, but I happen to think he's quite a genius), and/or Mary Gaitskill.

    I've been consciously making more time to read lately, too. Reading a great food memoir right now entitled Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee. Very, very good. Happy weekend!

  14. I, too, love books and book stores and I pass with up turned nose at what is best-selling..because I don't want to read what every one is reading..I'm really not a snob..just feel that I don't want to run with the crowd I guess. I remember when The Da Vinci Code came out..the chain stores had them stacked to the ceiling in pyramid shapes..I tried to read it when my daughter loaned it to me..but honestly..it started out so hokey that I couldn't continue. She said, Mom you have to get past the first 100 pages..Nah I didn't think I wanted to waste my reading time. Maybe I missed out..but I don't feel that I did. I love Dorothy Parker and have lots of her work. Been reading it for quite some time as well as Shirley Jackson..everyone in my high school class remembers the required reading of The Lottery because it was during the Vietnam War when the guys were getting drafted~I am a little older than you! Very nice post!

  15. I love, love, love going to bookstores and to the library.

    Things Fall Apart" was a very interesting read. It's been awhile since I read it but I enjoyed it when I did.

    I just finished up a book of short stories called "Eating Naked." The name of the author escapes me at the moment...anyhow, the stories were all very good, though some were a bit raw. But you could tell within the first few lines if the story was going to be that way or not.

  16. Tumbleweed Woman, Thank you for your suggestions. FREE reading coming soon--bravo! Enjoy!

    life in yonder, I can smell that coffee too and I'm a bit sleepy. I need a cup.

    Maria, Once you read The Lottery, you'll never forget it. That's all I'll say.

    Lucy, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one taking notes.

    Rebekah, Oh good...you too. Now Lucy and I can feel better.

    Christina, Great! That is high praise. It seems I made a good choice.

    Pen and Paperie, I enjoyed The Poetics of Space a while back, but have not yet read Wallace Stevens The Collected Poetry. Thanks. The Book of Imaginary Beings looked like a real treat!

    Ann, No, I have not read Winesburg, Ohio, but I do recognize the photograph on the cover. I just requested it from my library. Thank you.

    Vanessa, What would be even better--browsing in bookshops and then eating some of those glorious sweets you photograph! I know I'd be happy.

    Mosey, Yes, Alice Munro. Of course. I've almost read one of her books so many times. Too many books on my to-read list, I guess. Which book would you recommend as an introduction to Alice Munro?

    alexandria, You are always a wealth of information when it comes to book suggestions. My recent visit back to The Old Man and the Sea was a good one. I haven't read any Colm Tóibín, but I will. I'd like to read Zadie Smith's essays too. Thanks!

    Annie, It seems we are both book lovers. I hope you are reading something fantastic right now.

    Megan, Oh, good. I just love libraries. Several new authors in your comment for me--excellent! Thanks. I read a bit about Trail of Crumbs and it looks superb!

    Kim, I agree, no need to follow the crowd. Read what you like. I sure do.

    Stephanie, Eating Naked is a pretty intriguing title. I'll check it out. Thanks.

  17. A little Doris Lessing is also on my list of books to read. The copy I have of The Golden Notebook is especially beautiful too.

  18. re: Alice Munro. I never remember the names of the compilations - I always just devour the stories within. But on checking my bookshelves, I own this one: Runaway.

    I also love Grace Paley - have you read her stories? The Little Disturbances of Man is delicious.

  19. gracia, Which edition/publisher copy of The Golden Notebook do you have? I like the McGraw-Hill American paperback reprint, published 1963. Are you familiar with this project: http://thegoldennotebook.org/ I've just begun perusing and thought you might find it interesting too.

    mosey, I took your advice and added The Little Disturbances of Man to my list. I was intrigued by a review stating "The notion that her characters are at love, rather than in love, suggests that love is something—one thing among others—her characters do. It requires active engagement, much like work, and it is never fully grasped, neither in the sense of being under control nor in the sense of being entirely understood"

  20. bookmarked: you, your words, your book list :)

  21. Hmmm... You've got a great list going here without any help from us. I do love The Lottery. I think it's the best short story ever. I also love The Yellow Wallpaper. By Charlotte Perkins, I think. I swear, you feel like you are going insane right along with her. Also, you might need to add the short stories of Alice Munroe.

  22. Denise, I confess that I quickly copied and pasted your reading list. Funny, how I know I will enjoy anything that you read because I so enjoy reading what you write. Thanks.


  23. I've never read any Ray Bradbury...I must, I think!

  24. Amelia, Great!

    Relyn, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins is a favorite of mine. I know what you mean about going insane right along with her. She wrote it so well.

    Melissa, Keep in mind that these are books I'd like to read, but have not yet read. I hope I will like them, but I won't know until I start reading. I hope you enjoy these selections.

    Jane, Yes, you must. I've only read Fahrenheit 451. I read it a long while back, but so much of it stuck with me. Such an amazing and haunting book.

  25. I absolutely love Borges, but in my opinion, "the book of imaginary beings" is not the best. Get a book of his best short stories, like Ficciones. I first read one ofhis stories "The garden of forking paths" during my undergrad and one of the reasons I wanted to become fluent in Spanish was to read it in its original language. If you like Borges, Julio Cortazar's short stories are also fabulous.

    I liked The Lottery (as much as you can like a stoning, I suppose), but I don't remember liking any other of her stories as much.

  26. Annje, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I've updated my to-read list.