Featured in picture: The Killing Floor by Lee Child

I think every book lover can agree that books are more than just a pile of glued or stitched together paper. They’re family. Books are always there for us. Even if they get packed away or lost and we can’t afford to buy new ones, there are plenty of free books online and at libraries. There are even mini “libraries” in some towns where people can leave and take books freely to promote literacy. One book can take us away from our troubles, broaden our knowledge, stimulate new ideas, or even give helpful advice that we may not have known we needed. Books have the power to change the world, if only for those who read them. It is partly for this reason that I am so selective about what books I read. Reading the wrong book can change our world for the worse.

Some books have situations that can trigger unpleasant memories or cause undue stress in other ways. There are other books that might anger readers because of the religious, political, or cultural views they present. We should be able to determine whether a book will do any of these things by reading the book’s summary and, if the author or publisher is thoughtful enough to include one, trigger warning. There have been several times when authors or publishers simply didn’t provide the proper information in the summary and a great many times when they neglected to add a trigger warning. There's really no defense against this, but reading reviews might help reveal aspects of the book the author or publisher should have mentioned as well as other elements we may not enjoy. While this is true, it's important to keep in mind that we all have different tastes and sensitivities. This is one reason most books receive mixed reviews. Usually, each book strikes different people in different ways, which is partly why I'm open to reading books that have mixed reviews. A book might have been disturbing or lacking to one person or even to several people, but it might be right up my alley. I will, however, go in prepared for content that may upset me, which is much better than stumbling upon it unexpectedly. Whether I have access to reviews or not, I always spend at least an hour combing through libraries and stores—digital and brick-and-mortar alike—before making my selection.

Choosing the right book is specifically important for us writers, albeit in other ways. The emotions and habits we walk away with after reading a book can influence our own writing. Part of learning to write well is reading great stories. When I read a poorly written work, I notice that I seem to pick up the bad habits of the author until I realize what’s going on and make a conscious effort to stop. Reading literature is an excellent way to learn new writing techniques and to discover what tropes and phrases are commonly used so that we can tailor our own writing to include more original content. That said, reading books and analyzing our reactions to various aspects of them is a great method of determining how some readers might react to our own stories if we incorporate those aspects. Returning to the topic of reviews, as I touch on in part one of my review series, reading reviews is a more accurate way of learning how others react to certain elements of a story. Like I said before, reactions will vary by person, but it gives us an idea of what things some people like and don't like in literature.

Several times now I've used the phrase "the right book," but what exactly does that mean? It depends on what we want out of a book, our expectations. In my opinion, choosing the right book means choosing the book we truly want or need to read at a given time, and it's also being mindful, given the information we're provided, of whether the book will be helpful or harmful when we make our choice. What do you want in a book? Is there a genre you're most interested in reading or a message you're looking for? Is there a trope or theme you're trying to avoid? Are you someone who only wants books that have been decently edited, or does that even matter to you? When I take all this into consideration, I almost always wind up with a book I truly enjoy and that brings value to my life and my craft.

For me, the right book has a unique and engaging plot (that doesn’t revolve around a love triangle or any other polygon), dynamic and well-rounded characters, and great (or at the very least, decent) editing. If it has graphic content, I also prefer it to have a trigger warning so that I know what I'm getting into. If a book meets at least one of the first three requirements, I can usually enjoy and profit from it. I can typically tell by reading the summary and the first few pages if two of these requirements may be met (plot and editing). Since a book can take off or tank any number of pages into it, the first chapter isn’t always representative of what the rest of the book will hold, but it helps me at least see if the book hooks me. If a book doesn’t hook me within the first chapter, I usually drop it unless something in the summary or reviews promises the book will eventually get interesting. I don’t want to waste my time. Knowing what I want in a book helps me pick books I’ll more than likely enjoy, and in regard to my work as a reviewer, it helps me choose books that have more of a shot at earning a good rating.

I didn't use to put so much thought into my reading selection, but after stumbling upon so many soul-crushing or even just lack-luster books, I’ve found that it’s very important to be careful about what literature we read, even though there are many books out there that might defy our expectations for better or worse once we start reading them. Do you agree? How selective are you about the books you read?