First of all, this is very personal. You're you in a moment in time with things in you that you can't discover without the right book's help, so picking the right book matters a great deal.
There's only one way to pick the wrong book--have someone whose taste you mistrust but whose person you value urge you to read it. That's not even picking a book, of course. It's having someone pick the book for you. Not likely to work.
Wandering the fiction stacks in the library can work, though it has something alphabetical about it. In the Gs you'd narrow things down mentally to a certain few authors who naturally wouldn't show up in the Ps. But there you are in the Gs, and you know who you know and you know who you don't know and yet have heard about, or read about, and are curious… But why start with another G author when you haven't read all the books by a certain G author you really like? Suppose, for instance, only three unread books by your favorite G author remain. Which to choose? The short one? The one that looks the most read or perhaps is the newest acquisition because its predecessor copy has been read so often with such delight that it has fallen apart? When not sure of yourself, pick the short one.
Do titles matter? To authors they do, and they matter even more to publishers who have the audacity to start contract negotiations with the stipulation that the author may consult on the title but the publisher reserves the final say to him or herself. But do they matter to readers? I think the more you read, the less titles matter. Sure, some are wonderful, but some are just words useful for remembering a given book. Generally, books make titles rather than the other way around (although there are exceptions.)
With their spines facing you in the library stacks, books' covers are hidden, so you have to do some pulling and juggling if a book's cover matters to you…even more so if you like to read the verbiage on the inside flap (I don't). But it's true that books' covers really do seem to get better and better all the time, often better than the books themselves. To see them easily, though, you need to be in a bookstore where the books are displayed on a table. Plus, bookstores are as intriguing and vaguely alarming as blind dates: the previously unknown book you touch and buy is going to be yours, not a loan, and that offers a sense of possession that has its allure. I'll take this one and that one, you tell yourself. Limit myself to two. Give myself a chance to come back.
Online book buying is efficient, sometimes cost-effective, but experientially a little thin and it also takes time for the book to arrive, during which some other book may have interposed itself. Unless, of course, you use an e-reader, which remains astonishing in its rapidity. All so easy. Increasingly like reading "the real thing." Well, isn't it the real thing? Am I now writing something that isn't the real thing because I'm typing words on a screen, not writing them on a pad?
But back to getting that next book right… You aren't seeing anyone, so you have time on your hands. Get a fat book. You feel inadequately informed about something, like, Why am I so fat? Get a diet book. You would like to read a book set in Vienna. You don't know exactly why, but there is an offness (that's a neologism, I suspect) about Vienna, an uncentered, uncertain quality about it, that matches your sense of where you are in life these days…or this decade. So you choose a book that at least passes through Vienna. (One I'm reading now, William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise, certainly opens with some wonderful passages capturing Vienna's difficult, elusive self.)
Or look, you tell yourself: my shelves are loaded with books I haven't gotten to, books I bought at the library sale, books people gave me, books I've been hauling around since college. What I'm going to do, you declare, is read every book in this apartment before another one gets in.
Mentally, you bar the door. You imagine yourself imprisoned…or on the proverbial deserted island…in any case you realize you've issued yourself a kind of challenge that is way, way over the top.
Instead of reading all these unread books, why not take them to a secondhand book store, sell them, and browse for books you don't own and always wanted to?
Secondhand book stores are the best. And among the very best are the ones in New York City, Columbus, Ohio, and Oregon. At least that's my experience. Why are all these secondhand books available at such low prices, many of them not secondhand at all, but actually brand new? Publisher overruns, people trading in books they really didn't want, publishers (especially university presses) bringing out titles only three people beyond the author's family would want to read…including you.
Two summers ago I went on a rampage in Columbus, Ohio. My God, the books I bought about Russia and the Soviet Union weighed a ton, and I wanted more, but which was the best about the Russian Revolution? Which was the best about Peter the Great? Which was the best about Glasnost and Perestroika? I had to stand there for almost two hours comparing books that overlapped, competed with one another, or in some other way seemed more or less compelling, more or less redundant.
That sorrowful critic Harold Bloom, who has read everything, hasn't missed a chance in the last decade to say that he is about to read, or has just read, Hamlet for the last time…or The Sound and the Fury for the last time…or Keats' letters for the last time. For him, and I suppose for all of us, the question of reading is inextricably linked to both our sense of self and to our sense of mortality. We know that the next book matters because it may be the last book.
What would you want to read as your last book? Answering that question correctly is crucial to choosing the next book to read. It makes the choice tough, but it makes it real.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund