Judging Books by Their Opening Lines

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?

3 thoughts on “Judging Books by Their Opening Lines”

  1. I like the idea of reading the opening lines, since it clearly gives a better example of the work than the cover or even the title could. Yet I’ve read some fabulous books that had lackluster beginnings, and dreary books that showed great promise in their opening thoughts. A good book can be hidden within a horrible book, and vice versa.

    Ultimately, though, where does one draw the line between making an executive decision regarding a book’s value (with no actual evidence), and just sitting down where you are in the store and reading the piece in its entirety? I feel like the risk is part of the enchantment of being in a book store or library, as you reach out for that spine to gaze at the either enticing or repelling front cover. Deciding is part of the fun, and those books you chose based on their aesthetic appeal that ended up disappointing you simply make the hidden masterpieces more of a delight to stumble upon.

    We could read only good books every day of our life, and still sigh at the multitudes waiting for us. But I think it’s important to throw in some duds to remind us what constitutes good literature.

    1. Ebooks draw the line nicely when they include a free sample. I’ve seen those done well with everything from poetry to non-fiction. Whether you have the time to read a bunch of samples is another matter…

      I completely agree that the duds make us appreciate the gems but you won’t see me consciously seeking out duds!

      Thanks for your comment!

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