Judging Books by Their Opening Lines

by Arthur Klepchukov

You pick up a book with an interesting title or attractive cover. You flip it over to the back cover, trying to ignore the praise as you hunt for the description. Sometimes you have to crack open the jacket and occasionally the price in one of the corners catches your eye before the description. If you haven’t been distracted or turned away yet, you turn back to the cover, crack the book open, and hunt for that first real page. Does this process have to happen in this order?

No matter how hard I try, I still judge books by their covers. I judge them by their titles too but that feels less guilty since an author has more say in the title than the cover. It’s depressing to think how many good books I’ve missed out on because the cover and title didn’t entice me enough to open them to that wonderful first page. Could there be a way to overcome our biases as readers and find better books that are deserving of our time?

Why not just start reading at the opening lines and see if you’re compelled to keep reading past the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter? This is the best way to judge a book because the writing stands on it’s own. A title bears little correlation to the quality of the story. A cover may be designed with zero input from the author or by a self-published author on a budget with no design skills. A back cover or jacket is often full of marketing fluff and advance praise, which I never find useful. A good description still leaves you wondering about the execution of that wonderful premise. Time consuming as it may be, maybe the first thing you should do to evaluate a book is to start reading it. Skip the introductions, the forewords, the prefaces, and just dive in. Why do we spend time on the outside of the book at all? A clever title, gorgeous cover, wonderful praise, and an addictive description don’t matter if the material inside is unreadable.

This thought experiment isn’t really something you can try in a bookstore. You can’t help skimming the title, judging the cover, or forming expectations based on which section of the store you’re in. A web site, on the other hand, only reveals as much as it wants to. It would be much easier to try this approach online.

Picture a site where you go to find new things to read. You pick what genres you like or a few books you’ve enjoyed. Then, you’re presented with some opening lines and two options: Keep Reading and Try Something Else. Keep Reading would let you see the entire free sample of the book. Try Something Else would show you some new opening lines. At any point you could also see which book the current opening lines are from and see links to buy it wherever it’s available. All the online book recommendations I’ve seen are just digital versions of the bookstore process, with all the same biases. Isn’t it time for something better?