At Book Riot they recently did a feature on books that changed your life and this made me wonder about the books that were most influential in my life and how I found them. Two instances came to mind immediately and both times I was drawn towards the book solely based on its looks. Most book-lovers have learned that judging a book by its cover is actually not a bad idea and that great covers can lead to great book experiences. Sometimes you don’t need to know anything about the book, other than that the cover is very pretty, and then all that is left for you to do is to walk over to that register and pay for that thing. There is no need for peeking inside the book, reading a couple of pages or even the back. You see it and you just know. It’s book love at first sight.
Browsing book stores and libraries is very important to finding books (Lev Grossman agrees, so you know I’m right). It’s like an adventure, a hunt, searching through the large stacks of similar looking books to find just that one that suits your every need. It has happened to me quite often that I just walk around in a book store and then suddenly something catches my eye. It could be a nice bold and colourful rectangle or an understated leather-bound block of paper, but the moment your eye lands upon that magnificent pile of pages, you just feel drawn to it. You walk over to the shelf/display/rack and your hand moves as if it has a will of its own. You grab the book and look at it in awe. Only then do you actually register what it’s called and, only if you need a bit more convincing, you read what the book is about.
Sometimes these books can be just as amazing as the cover, but it also happens that the actual synopsis of the book is disappointing or that the book itself is just a snooze. Although this hasn’t happened to me very often (as I am the master Book Picker) it is always a risk when you base your initial judgement on the looks of the book. On the other hand, when it turns out you were right and the book that you picked was as great as your initial epiphany made it out to be, it feels like fate. Like you and that book were meant to be together and impact the shit out of each others lives.
I have found many books just based on a good-looking cover, but not all of them were life-altering game changers. To me, this happened only twice.
The first time I found a book that was actually this special was when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I was on a short vacation to some kind of bungalow park and while staying there we visited a small city with a nice looking bookshop. I have no memory of where this vacation took place, all I remember is that it was in Holland and I played a lot of the Pokemon Card Game with my sisters. The moment I saw my first ‘love at first sight’ book, however, is still etched in my mind. The window of this small book shop was decorated with a flying car, a broomstick and a big stack of books with the beaming words ‘Harry Potter’.
I just stared at it and felt an immediate gravitational pull towards the bookshop. I had never heard of Harry Potter at that time and only the first two books had been published in Dutch in the early 2000’s, but according to the window display it was an international sensation. Already back then I was way too much of a hipster to be drawn to sensations, but something just felt right this time. I ran into the bookstore and just stared at the covers of The Philosophers Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. I’m still not sure if I convinced my parents to buy me two new books, if I somehow saved up enough money to buy them myself or maybe even stole them. All I know is that the rest of that vacation was spent reading everywhere, anytime I could manage to squeeze in a page or two. I devoured these books and knew that I had never read anything as wonderful as this.
Harry Potter marked a time in my reading history where I embraced the magic and children’s/young adult fiction and learned to really love fictional characters. Books about magical children who are Chosen and have to overcome hardship while building important friendships, falling in love and growing up have become my genre kryptonite. Since then I have read all the Harry Potter books around six or seven times and many other books about magical children and other wizardly people. It even crept into my own writing as I keep on thinking up stories about magic and Chosen Ones, hoping one day my writing will be someone’s Harry Potter.
The second time I found a life-changing work of fiction was years later. I was shopping with my mom and big sister in some other unspecified city in Holland. Apparently my family and strange, unmemorable cities in Holland are the perfect recipe to finding my most important books. I was browsing the fiction shelves and had recently decided I should start reading books in English as it was cheaper and I thought it would make me look cooler and more international. How was I ever going to move to a different continent if I didn’t read books in English?
As I was saying, I was browsing the English language section in the bookstore and for the second time in my life my eye fell on the spine of this small Penguin book. It had a title in calligraphy and the writer’s last name felt immediately fun to say. ‘Fforde’. That double ‘F’ made it special somehow. I slowly reached for it, the words ‘The Eyre Affair‘ shining brightly, and slid it out from the other books and stared at the cover. It had a book on it with a lock and key. It didn’t look like anything particularly special, but I just felt like I had to have it. On the cover is a part of a review by the Wall Street Journal stating that it contains elements of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I immediately knew I made the right decision, but still checked the synopsis just for good measure. I found out the book is about a woman who can live inside books and has adventures in this magical place called the Bookworld where she jumps into classical literature like Jane Eyre, The Raven and Hamlet. I held on to it until everyone was ready to leave and with my heart pounding, I payed for it at the register.
I was looking forward to reading this book as soon as I had the chance, but this in no way meant that I was done shopping. I went to a second-hand book store in that same town and walked to the basement to browse some more cool international fiction. I had never been in to this particular store and I remember the basement being fairly empty and very warm. I had lost my mom and sister somewhere along the way and I was reading the spines with my head bend sideways when I suddenly recognised a name. This cover wasn’t as nice as the book I just bought, but then I knew for certain that it had been faith. It was Lost in a Good Book, sequel to The Eyre Affair and the second part of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.
I almost jumped up and down, immediately took it from the shelves and tested my luck by looking for another one of his books. I didn’t find any others, but I was happy enough with my two-book treasure. I made a strange comment to my mother and sister about how I knew this book was going to be important and it was so special that I found two books of the same writer on the same day, but I must have been foaming at the mouth from excitement as they didn’t take it very seriously.
I read the book when I came home and I couldn’t hide a smug smile. It was again love at first sight and The Eyre Affair instilled a love for classical literature and crazy names in me. I found this book around the time I finished high school, when I wasn’t really reading all that much. I have always loved reading and never really stopped, but my reading regiment did have its ups and downs. At that moment I hadn’t really found any books I was interested in for a while until I came upon The Eyre Affair which gave me the life-long mission of reading all the classical literature that I had never thought about or heard of. Not long after that I started with The Picture of Dorian Gray, Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice. I made it known to my parents that from now on I was going to read all the classics – in English of course – and I was going to buy ALL the books. The next time they went on vacation they returned with a stack of classical literature and my collection of books has been growing ever since.
Simply browsing book stores is a great way to find great books, but it can also be overwhelming. The large and never ending racks of books can make you feel small and insignificant. There is no way you can read all these books anyway, so why even bother sifting through them? But for book lovers, the physical browsing is totally worth it and also a big part of the experience of a book. It is fun to think about finding one of your favourite books when you found it in some dusty old shop with a strange looking shopkeeper who kept on making eyes at you while mumbling something about the Chosen One. That sounds much more exciting than simply buying it online!
I can talk about visiting book stores for hours (especially now that I have been to Powell’s in Portland), but if you are interested in that subject you might be better off visiting The Matilda Project. It’s a great blog about the adventures of book hunting and the importance of physical stores, so have a look over there if you are into that sort of thing. I will definitely use her book store map next time I go to London, in the hope of finding my next great work of fiction!
In the upcoming weeks I will probably continue to write about books and other artworks, and how to find them, including buying artworks only based on the title or author name, or because of recommendations through friends or competitions (the so called award-winners). So tune in again soon, if you want to learn how to find books and other artworks by someone completely unqualified and not even remotely famous!