December 22nd, 2007
Most people know that they like a certain type of book, but have you ever thought about why you like the types of books that you do? For most people, it is related to what librarians call “appeal factors”. These are some the traditional appeal factors that you can determine from the subject heading of the book:
- Genre: Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy…
- Location: New York City, London, Japan…
- Time Period: Civil War, Medieval, present day…
- Character: Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, the Amish…
Some non-traditional appeal factors that are harder to quantify are:
- Pacing: A fast-paced book races along a gallop to its breathless conclusion - Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is a good example of a fast paced book, as is anything by Clive Cussler. A slow paced book moves along leisurely and may feel more reflective or introspective - think of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Of course, pacing can also be mixed or uneven.
- Drive: A plot-driven book is full of action - what is going on is more important than who is doing it. The characters may be one dimensional or stereotypes in plot-driven books. Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books are a good example. Character-driven on the other hand, spends more time getting to know the people and they are complex and hard to categorize as either a good or bad, a hero or a villain. By the end of the book, you really feel like you know them and you empathize with them. Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs is a classic example of this. A third option is dialog-driven where the characters spend most of their time talking - think of anything by Jane Austen. Yet another option is imagery-driven. Does the author paint pictures with his words? Can you visualize the scene to the last detail? Annie Proulx and Michael Ondaatje both excel at imagery.
- Storyline: Is the story internal and psychological, or external and physical? Is it about ideas or about action?
- Red Flags: This is actually an anti-appeal factor, but it’s just as important. Some people can’t stand to read about violence or sex. Others don’t like foul language or treating religion with disrespect. Regardless of what trips your trigger, it can completely spoil an otherwise good story, so it is good to know what your limits are.
At this point you may be saying “So what? Why should I care about appeal factors?” Simply because they can help you find a book that you will enjoy reading. Let’s face it, life is too short to spend it struggling through books you don’ t enjoy and if you spend just a little time reflecting on the books you love, you may come to some conclusions about your own reading tastes.
Once you understand the various appeal factors, you will begin to understand the code words that book reviewers use and it will help you pick out books that you might like. Look for the button in our catalog beneath a title to find out more about a book.
When I’m looking for something to read and don’t really have anything in mind, I try to think of a book that I really enjoyed and figure out what it is about that particular book that I loved. Here’s an example: I really loved Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. In many ways, it is a Cinderella-like story of a poor, beautiful girl who elevated herself and that plot is the main thing that interested me. The characters are pretty clear cut - Chiyo, Mameha and the Chairman are all heroes, Mrs. Nitta and Hatsumomo are the villains. The pacing is moderate - neither fast nor slow, and there is little internal reflection - it is mainly the actions of and the interactions between characters that I enjoyed. The Japanese setting and the world of the geisha is exotic and I really enjoyed the historical details, but it doesn’t inspire me to read other books about Japan specifically. Luckily for me, there are a lot of books that are similar to Memoirs of a Geisha that don’t look like it on the surface. There are classic rags to riches tales - Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring has a very similar feel of a poor girl rising above circumstance. It even has a historical flavor though it is set in the Netherlands. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is another book rich in historical detail that involves women overcoming their circumstances.
I do want to clarify that your reading tastes may vary with your mood and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula to finding new books and authors you might like. Sometimes you may want a light read that does nothing more than entertain you but another day you want something that makes you think or feel. It’s like your taste in food - sometimes you want a turkey dinner with all the trimmings and sometimes all you need is chocolate cake. As always, we’re here to help you find the right book, whatever your mood.