Literary Deal Breakers: What Scares You Off a Book?

by Patrick on January 8, 2010

On NPR’s website, Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga recommends the NYRB Classic To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson.  It’s an excellent recommendation for a book I’d been intrigued by but that I also found a bit intimidating.  Apparently, I wasn’t alone:   “The book, which was published in 1940, is called a classic and is described as a history of socialism. For these two reasons, I avoided it for years, assuming that it would be stupendously boring. What a mistake that turned out to be.”

It isn’t uncommon for a book’s length to scare people off, and I’m not surprised to see Adiga mention an aversion to the “classics.”  The term conjures images of mahogany-paneled libraries and leatherbound copies of Thomas Hardy books.  It also, unfortunately, can carry echoes of boredom, of difficulty, or, worst of all, of a book that is “good for you,” something you’re supposed to have read.  There aren’t that many universal truths with regards to reading, but one of them is that reading and obligation aren’t a happy couple.

Genre can also scare off many a reader.  How many people have picked up a book  that looked interesting, only to put it down again after realizing it was fantasy or sci-fi or a thriller?  I find myself drawn to certain subjects and certain styles, and I frequently have to remind myself that there are great books in many different sections of the store.  I’m scared off by long books and old books.  So scared, in fact, that I decided to take on some of my fears in 2010 by reading at least two books published before 1900.  People were good enough to give me some recommendations (including a couple of readers who noted Moby-Dick‘s surprising humor).

When it comes to choosing a book, what’s a red flag issue for you?  What makes you put a book back on the shelf?  Is it something in the jacket copy or something about the cover?  I’m curious.