You should never judge a book by its cover, goes the saying. That’s obviously true, but sometimes I can’t help it. I’m a nerd for SF novels, and I have to admit that the sight of slick spaceships skimming down into the purple atmospheres of alien planets does often spark some interest in my CGI-corrupted imagination. It’s rarely a good call, of course. It’s a bit like that feeling after buying something at Pizza Hut based on the glossy photo in the menu. When the flavourless product arrives, you realise that you’ve conned yourself out of 15 quid when you could have saved cash and just eaten the menu instead.
So what other way can you tell if you’re going to enjoy a novel? Start reading it? Whatevs. Life’s too short, and the feeling of defeat upon abandoning a book that isn’t a perfect fit can knock the confidence of some readers (not that it should, but it’s a common reason for taking a hiatus from reading). Yes, there are reviews and there’s word of mouth, of course, but where’s the spontaneity in that? If you’re browsing a pile of second hand books in a street market, or waiting for a flight without the power of Google, how can you know if you’ll like it?
I have a method. It’s one I’ve used for the past ten years, and it works for me. Sometimes. The ultimate answer isn’t 42, it’s 69. Hahaha, right? That’s the dirtiest number there is! But it’s also what Marshall McLuhan said was the key to knowing if you’d like a book before you take the plunge. Page 69. The idea is that it gives you the chance to see the story in the early stages of its full flow; a bit of action without any spoilers (hopefully). It’s become an obsession for me.
Sure, the first chapter is designed as the hook. It’s the part of the book that almost certainly went to the publisher first; the most difficult sentences to write, perhaps, which, along with deciding on character names, can be the first stumbling block for an author.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Classic.
“Call me Ishmael.” Gold.
“In the beginning there was the word.” Heavenly.
But, in so far as giving you a flavour of the book, the plot is still crouched on the starting line, waiting for the imminent gunshot. You want to get a look at the champion as they’re running to get an idea of their talents.
Obviously, the page 69 test doesn’t always work. There have been plenty of times that I’ve excitedly flicked through pages to find that the 69th is just a chapter heading, or a picture, or, if I try it with a novella, empty space. It’s not an exact science. But, simply put, if you like page 69, you’ll probably like the rest of the book.
Let’s have a go with a few classics. Since I already mentioned Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, it seems a good place to begin. Page 69, in the edition I’m reading, throws you straight in to this:
“After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years’ voyages – The Devil-Dam the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes. I peered and pryed about the Devil-Dam; from her, hopped over to the Tit-bit; and, finally, going on board the Pequod, looked around her for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for us.”
From where I’m sitting, that’s a pretty good introduction. A pivotal point in the plot, without giving much away, written in Melville’s typically elegant style.
Now here’s a bit of page 69 of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds:
“‘Crawl up under cover and rush ‘em, say I,’ said one. ‘Get aht!’ said another. “What’s cover against this ‘ere ‘eat? Sticks to cook yer! What we got to do is to go as near as the ground’ll let us, and then drive a trench.’ ‘Blow yer trenches! You always want trenches; you ought to ha’ been born a rabbit Snippy.’”
Ooh, exciting. Not only do we know there’s some attempt at alien fighting going on, it also gives an example of Wells trying to write in the style of the lower classes (which, to be honest, I always found rather irritating).
The above extracts are from books that happen to be near me as I write, both of which I have read. Next to them is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, which I still haven’t. “What was it the spitoon hitters said about Naseem Aziz? ‘She eavesdropped on her daughters’ dreams, just to know what they were up to.’” Pretty compelling, even without context.
Try it for yourself. Grab a nearby book and give it a go. It’s not really a game for the era of ebooks (I’ve yet to see a version of this designed for location numbers), but, for me, it’s the most fool-proof way of finding out if me and my paper pal are going to last more than just chapter one.