Don’t Judge a Reader by His Cover

harry potterDispensers of writing advice will frequently say, “Know your audience.” I think that means we should pick a genre and follow the conventions of that genre (yawn). They can’t be suggesting we know who is going to like our material, can they? Can you really judge a reader by his cover?

Here are some random examples that say “no,” culled from real people in my life:

1. A thirty-something fashion plate who’s poised and modest. She’s definitely not into greasy kids’ stuff and disapproves of undignified behavior. Wouldn’t be caught dead watching a movie about superheroes or fighting robots.

Yet she’s totally obsessed with the Harry Potter universe. She knows every book inside and out.

2. A man in his mid-twenties, sports fan, and devoted scholar of world history and foreign cinema.

You know those Twilight books? He’s read ‘em all, cover to cover, more than once.

3. A man in his early fifties, gun collector, with the appearance of a former biker dude.

In his spare time, he pores over books about horticulture and grows exotic trees.

One of the most fascinating things about life with humans is being continually surprised by what they are into, not the least of which is their reading choices. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I write speculative fiction, AKA science fiction, horror, and supernatural. You probably know I’m really into music, both as a musician and a listener. I’m married, got a kid, work in an office building. But when it comes to books, can you guess what’s on my shelf?

  • Piles of cozy mysteries by Agatha Christie and others. Give me British aristocracy, an old mansion, and a murder, and I’m yours for 250 pages.
  • Rows of film studies and analyses. Who made what movie and when? Why? What does it say about: society, philosophy, the human condition, the inherent destructive nature of man, pretentious film writers? Less-serious titles about low-budget trash cinema abound as well.
  • Heaps of books on art history and criticism, especially French, Dutch, and Italian. Some ancient Greek and Roman thrown in, plus some really dry stuff about medieval architecture and metalwork. Never mind that I can’t paint a fence.
  • Titles on popular science, evolution, and critical thinking (the latter of which don’t seem to be working).
  • Assorted stragglers, like whatever Elmore Leonard novels I haven’t gotten to yet, plus a few literary works and classics.
  • And writing books, though that is a given for someone who blogs about writing all the time.

So there’s my book collection in a nutshell. Very few horror or science fiction novels. No fantasy or supernatural. Not much about music. Maybe not what people would expect based on my “cover.”

How about you? What’s on your bookshelf, and which titles would surprise us?




17 responses to “Don’t Judge a Reader by His Cover

  • Lea Jurock

    I write purely Fantasy but my book shelves have everything from cozy mysteries and historical fiction to children’s books such as Anne of Green Gables. Love it all! 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      I’d bet your Fantasy fiction is more expansive because of all the different things you read. It all informs your writing, probably in subtle ways.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I love this. One of the first things I like to do when I visit a person’s house for the first time is check out what books and CDs they have. I’m currently writing historical fiction, but the majority of books in my collection are fantasy, cook books, nature field guides, and of course research books.

    • ericjbaker

      Cook books and research books? You really are willing to put in the time and effort! 😉

      I like to look at people’s books to see what I can borrow! I’m always ready to return the favor, though. And if my book collection seems ecclectic, you should see my CDs. It’s an odd mix to say the least.

  • Zen A.

    You hit the mark there. Many people read thing you might not expect them to as a sort of “guilty pleasure”. I write fantasy and magical realism, and my shelves are stacked with those and other fantastical worlds and elaborate plots, but occasionally I like to indulge myself with a bit of light chick lit. 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Why not, if it’s enjoyable to read? I’ve turned in that direction when I’m looking for something light and fun. Pity those poor twentysomethings in the big city with such bitchy bosses!

  • brianhmoll

    What you say is true, and fascinating. I know someone with a BA in literature, and an MA in journalism, who reads only Daniel Silva and David Baldacci genre-thriller type stuff. At any rate..this conversation veers dangerously close to the argument about the purpose of literature and what makes a good book. As in: Do we read just entertain ourselves/escape? Or do we read to provoke thought? Or do we read to expand our brains? Is a book that entertains us and allows us to escape a good book, or do we accept it as just a guilty pleasure. And, if we say it’s just a guilty pleasure, something to fill in the gaps: with the finite time we have on earth, is it worth it to read something that just fills the gaps?

    • ericjbaker

      I can only speak for myself, but I like a mix. Sometimes I want to be challenged, but other times I want something breezy and fun. Variety is key, as long as the writing is good. I can be inspired by fluff as much as something deep, depending on the delivery.

      On your last question, that’s a good one. Sometimes I wonder why I’m spending two hours watching a movie when I could be doing something more worthwhile, but there is something to be said for living in the moment. If it elevates your sense of well being and no one is being hurt, why not enjoy that moment?

      Thank you for your thought-provoking comment!

  • Michelle Proulx

    I like this challenge. I went to my bookshelf to see what I put on my “favourite” shelf — here’s the result:

    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
    The Giver
    Battle Royale
    The Andalite Chronicles
    Cupid Doesn’t Flip Hamburgers
    Martin the Warrior
    Many Waters
    Faith of the Fallen

    You probably haven’t heard of most of those — some are kids books, one is from the Redwall series, one is from Animorphs, etc. I think that people should be allowed to read whatever the heck they want to 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      True that! The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a must on any bookshelf. I wish satire were more popular, since, deep down, that’s my favorite to write. But getting satire published is like trying to get a screeplay turned into a movie: A statistical near-impossibility.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Thanks for reminding me……I need to clean/organize my bookshelves, they’re overflowing with books from an array of genres. One book that isn’t on my shelf that may surprise you is Harry Potter. I never read one book in the series….don’t hate me. 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      I’ve never read it either. That’s all right. Old Harry seems to have enough support without us.

      Given the space limitations of apartment living, the only way for me to organize my bookshelves is to give stuff away or donate it to the library. Currently some of my shelves are two rows deep, so I think it’s time to ask myself some hard questions.

  • nrhatch

    My bookshelves don’t really reflect what I like to read since I tend to borrow most books I read from the library ~ at the moment, you would find Simplify Your Life, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Practical Intuition, and Present Moment, Wonderful Moment along with cookbooks, writing books, art books, antique children’s books, some Dickens, all things Austen, etc.

    Your list didn’t surprise me much . . . because I’ve seen evidence of it in your writing or your comments. For example, art history. And I believe I’ve heard you mention Dame Christie a time or two. She’s a fave of mine as well. I love her autobiography too.

    • ericjbaker

      You poor thing, having been exposed to my weirdness for so long that my weirdness no longer surprises you…

      I figured you would not clutter your life with stuff like books you’ve already read and will never read again. I’ve said it before, but you are the best taoist I know, even if you aren’t trying to be one. I haven’t kept every Dame Christie book I’ve ever read (which is almost all of them), just the ones with the endings I liked the best. I realize that makes no sense. I should read her autobiography.

  • kristenotte

    I try to read across many genres and many times this doesn’t fit with my other life interests. I coach basketball, but couldn’t tell you the last time I read a book relating to the sport in any manner. Recently, I’ve gotten into some fantasy and sci-fi which is way off the beaten path for me.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m speaking from a position of near total ignorance (won’t be the first time), but I can’t imagine one can learn how to be a good coach by reading a book about the sport. Same thing with some of the business books I see. “In ten minutes, this book will turn you into your company’s top salesperson!” Eh, I think there’s more to it than that.

      By the way, it’s cool to know that you are a basketball coach. If you ever encounter me on the court, I can pretty much promise that I will be your greatest teaching challenge yet. Just to make sure I’m headed in the right direction… that orange round thing is the ball, right?

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