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Please turn to page 69…

July 27, 2008

There are more books in existence than any person could ever possibly read in their lifetime.  Reading is a luxury, and it’s a time-consuming luxury.  How on earth should you choose what to read?

Book reviews help of course – the expert opinion of the literati can help sort the wheat from the chaff, but leaves your tastes at the mercy of someone else.  I find better still to be the recommendations of friends, the people who know you best.  Amongst one of the last books I read was one bought solely on the recommendation of a friend, and they were spot on.

Ultimately, the best judge of whether a book is worth reading is you – after all, you are the one who decides what you like.  But how do you know whether you’ll enjoy a book, without reading it first?

I stumbled upon an interesting little theory this week, mentioned in the Guardian Book Blog.  To decide if you will like a book, read page 69.  If you like that page, chances are you’ll like the rest of the book.

The theory is credited to Marshall McLuhan, and the rationale behind it is that page 69 is representative of the writing style of the author, the subject matter of the book etc.  The publisher’s blurb will make any book sound exciting, but until you immerse yourself in the substance of the author’s world, you will never know if it is a “fit” for you.

Charlotte Stretch, writing for the Guardian, tests this theory on five books, giving her opinions.  She does point out some flaws in the theory – different editions will have different page 69s (maybe you’d dislike one, yet like the other?) and can you truly have a feel for characters on page 69 without the previous 68 pages?

I cheated, and tested two books I have recently read – Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and The TIme Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Both books I enjoyed.  But on the basis of this test, I would only have bought one of them…

Page 69 of Neverwhere is a dense and descriptive passage, that leaves you as bewildered as the protagonist, Richard.  It only really picks up right at the very end, with some tantalising mentions of “Upworld” and “Lord Rat-Speaker” – but not enough to make me like it solely from reading that on page.

Meanwhile, page 69 of The Time Traveler’s Wife places us in the middle of a conversation between two characters.  It flows more easily, it teases with cryptic hints about the plot, and even throws in some philosophy.  It all struck a chord, and on the basis of that page, I would want to know more.

So perhaps the usefulness of the “page 69 test” is only very limited.  Rather than sole arbiter of what you should read, perhaps it is an additional tool when browsing for books, to help you choose what to read, and what to leave on the shelf.  And perhaps it has other uses too, beyond just books.

For those interested, you can read my 69th blog post here.  It is a Fiction Friday piece, and it is from the novel I am working on – so it may very well be representative of me after all.  Does it make you want to read more by me?

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