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Choosing A Great Read Requires Every Trick In The Book

07/02/2016 6:13 AM AEDT | Updated July 15, 2016 12:51
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There are about 130 million books in the world. The first was arguably written around 2400 BC and the most recent is probably being published right now.

The sheer abundance and variety of books available makes it daunting to choose one. After all, these are busy times, and no one wants to get a quarter of the way through a book before realising it's a stinker.

As a teenager I used to stare along the shelves in my school library and wonder how I would ever find the 'right' book. At least in those days, a librarian was on hand to help.

The indecision can be even more acute when visiting online 'bookstores. How can you choose a book when there are so many other invisible options? It is easy to spend hours scrolling through pages of 'books' and not even find one that is of interest.

So, to help you make your selection, here is a quick guide on how to find a great read when you feel overwhelmed by the options available.

Go with the tried-and-tested

Books become classics for a reason. If you visit the classics section of a physical or online book store, you'll find many familiar titles. While some of the older books might be difficult to read at first, after a few pages you'll find that you become more comfortable with the language as you go along. Soon, you'll forget that you ever found it difficult. And, most prove to be well worth the difficulty by the time you get to the end.

There is a certain sense of achievement you get from conquering an intimidating classic, and all the better if you enjoyed the experience.

Another good choice is the modern classic, which combines literary clout with accessible language.

Some of the best include:

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Trust the prize-winners

Unlike bottles of wine that carry medals for bottle design or colour but do not reflect the wine within, books are awarded on the actual product -- and there is usually a very good reason why they were successful.

This is particularly true of children's books, which vary considerably in quality. You might also want to check out other titles by prize-winning authors, as writers interested in producing quality stories that will both entertain and educate children should be more likely to consistently strike the right note.

The beauty of the prize-winners is that, even if you don't enjoy a book, there will be something in it that a panel of judges has deemed worthwhile. Perhaps it has illuminated the truth about something, or has an innovative structure. You don't have to enjoy reading it to get something valuable from it, although it's a big bonus if you do.

Some literary awards that you might want to refer to are:

  • The Man Booker Prize
  • Miles Franklin Literary Award
  • Costa Book Award for Book of the Year
  • Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction
  • Commonwealth Writers' Prize
  • National Book Award
  • Pulitzer Prize
  • PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
  • Man Booker International Prize
  • Nobel Prize in Literature

Revisit the authors you loved in the past

Often, if you enjoyed the way an author approached one book, you'll enjoy their other offerings. Is there a book you loved when you were studying English at school? There's a fair chance the author will have written other books which you will enjoy.

I first read Tim Winton when That Eye, The Sky was on my book list, and for the past 20 years I have continued to enjoy his writing.

Other writers I have found to be consistently readable include Rohinton Mistry, Ian McEwan and Joyce Carol Oates.

Take recommendations

There is probably someone in your life who loves books, and, while you have been bringing up children, working, training for marathons, or whatever has kept you from reading, has continued the habit. Use this valuable resource. They are likely to feel flattered you've asked them for their opinion -- everyone loves to give advice -- and there's a fair chance that you'll agree with their choice. If not, it will be an interesting discussion-point if you loathed their favourite book. And, if you can borrow their copy, you'll save money or a trip to the library.

If you don't trust your family and friends, you might be inclined to take the advice of hundreds of people who responded to the BBC's The Big Read survey in 2003. Over three quarters of a million votes were received from the British public, nominating their most-loved novels. While this misses many great books published since then, it is a great record of some very well-loved books up until then.

The top 10 were:

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

7. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Read the first page

My mother's advice has stood by me when selecting a book. She always said the best way to determine whether you're going to enjoy a book is to read the first page to see if it draws you in and if you like the language the writer uses. Does it leave you bursting to know what happens next? Does it relax you? Depending on what you're hoping to get out of the book, the first page can tell you a lot.

Of course, this isn't foolproof, as some books start slowly, only revealing their true glory as you read further. However, as a loose guide, this is another way of gauging how good the book is going to be.

Obviously, this isn't quite so easy if you are shopping online.

If all else fails

Take pot luck and see what happens. At least you'll discover what sort of book you don't like.

Happy reading.

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