I don’t know about you, but I have too many books on my TBR stack but instead of reading them, I just keep adding more. I can’t help it. Often I buy books because I’ve read a tantalizing review or it’s a recommendation from a bookseller or I just want to support a fellow writer. One reader confessed to having over 4,000 books waiting to be read on her Kindle. I found that unnerving. Have we always been so cavalier?
When I was growing up, my reading source was always the library. I would pick my four books which, in those days, was the maximum you could check out at one time. This was a cherished Saturday morning trip with my Dad who was a great reader (and, years later, suffered from Alzheimer’s which broke my heart). We would spend at least an hour or two drifting among the bookshelves carefully making our selections. For me, it started with an eye-catching cover, a flick to the back to read the blurb and then a glance in the middle. It was serious stuff. When I got home and started to read one of my selections and hated it, I would still persevere and finish it. I don’t do that now.
Just speaking for myself – and apologies to those who may disagree – but having access to books at the click of a button, or arriving by Amazon Prime within twenty-four hours, has taken away some of my joyful anticipation. There was a sort of reverence to starting a new book when we all had more time and less distractions. Now, there is no commitment – at least, not from me. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first fifty pages, it’s out. Not exactly disposable, but close.
I don’t know about everyone else but I am increasingly overwhelmed by the choice and sheer number of books out there. How do we choose?
I posed that question on my Facebook page showing three different book covers of my first mystery with the original 2008 American cover, the 2012 British cover, and the 2023 French cover. Each cover appealed to a different reader but a few said if they hated a cover, they wouldn’t even bother to read it. Back cover blurbs don’t always present a true picture of the content either. Case in point – the blurb written by M.C. Beaton appears on every one of my books even though it was originally earmarked for the first.
So how do we sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff?
Enter the infamous P.69 test. This is not a new concept. It’s been around for years and was a test created by Marshall McLuhan, (The Gutenberg Galaxy, written in 1962), who suggested that book browsers turn to page 69 and read it. If that page drew them in, then read that book. The idea being that by that point in the story, the inciting incident has happened, the characters are settling in and the plot is trundling along with plenty of conflict and consequences.
Without pointing out the obvious flaws to this idea i.e. a large print edition would have a different P.69, I decided to put it to the test with three different novels.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The narrator has just arrived at Manderley and on P.69 we realize she is narrating in flashback, imagining how her life with Maxim could have been, “growing old together” and fantasizing about their “boys. ” She reminisces on meeting the formidable Mrs. Danvers who will show the newly married pair their suite in the East Wing … not the master wing which – as those who know the story – was Rebecca’s suite of rooms that were never touched following her death.
There is a menacing foreshadowing about P. 69. I don’t know about you, but I must know what happened!
Anne Frank’s Diary by Anne Frank
I was fortunate to visit the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam a few years ago. It’s almost incomprehensible in today’s world to be able to imagine the fear and horror of those dreadful times.
P.69 falls in the middle of a diary entry for Wednesday 10th March 1943 when Anne writes of her terror of hearing the night-time anti-aircraft gunfire, of listening to the rats in the attic and of not being able to light a candle. Anne speaks of a character who lived there “before we went into hiding.” Her courage shines through the page which makes the ultimate outcome more devastating. Anne’s diary is utterly compelling because she takes us into her present and it’s impossible not to stay on her journey.
Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell
Full disclosure! I have not read ANY Ruth Rendell books and selected this one when I went to the library to put P.69 to the test. And it worked! On P.69 the protagonist – Stuart – is fascinated by a beautiful Asian woman who has an overbearing father. Stuart has followed them to a greeting card shop. When Stuart buys cigarettes and turns away just for a moment, she has gone. “To lose her now was the most appalling thing he could think of. He rushed out of the shop, staring wildly about …” The girl doesn’t know she is being watched which is chilling. The page finishes with “He couldn’t let her go. He must follow her.”
I took that book out and it’s on the top of my TBR stack!
So here are my questions: do you choose a book because you like the cover or the blurb? The first line? Do you read the first three pages before buying? Have you tried the P.69 test and what did you think?
Oh … and there is another test called the P.99 test, but that’s for another time.
P.S. For more examples of the P.69 test, visit Marshal Zeringue’s fabulous blog: The Page 69 Test