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Reviews inevitably determine which books we buy and read

Never judge a book by its cover, so the saying goes. Instead of looking at the design and title, the stories told within are of far more importance. They allow an idea to flourish and narratives to develop. It should be those explorations, and not simply a pleasant cover, that is the memorable part of our reading experience. But is this the case? We students have a finite amount of money to spend, not least on cultural pleasures like books. All of us therefore make multiple judgements before picking up a book, let alone buying one. 

I think it is instinctive for humans to enjoy expressing opinions. A part of our humanity is to reflect and offer our own perspective. To review is to form a personal experience of the world you wish for others to hear about. This is no different with regards to books. Newspapers and magazines devote pages towards reviewing the latest literary reads, with their prime reviews eager to praise or ridicule the latest craze to enter bookshops. Often reviews will be published in advance of the book’s publication, assuming this will shape what people buy. 

This must be true. It wouldn’t be economical to continually review books if companies believed it had no impact on the thoughts of others. I believe it does. Reviews can often be satisfying to read after an individual has enjoyed a book themselves. They read the book and then see how the critic assessed the book. Looking at how other people appreciate and debate the merits of different works celebrates interpretation. 

Quotes provide some kind of security that a novel is worth the time and will provide a satisfying reading experience

These reviews are not simply dedicated to newspaper columns. A new book desperate for literary success will often feature snippets of reviews on the cover, with lavish quotes used as evidence that the book is worth reading. I think these provide a sense of reassurance to readers as they decide on what to read. There is only a finite amount of time in the day to devote to books (unless you’re a book reviewer, that is). Quotes provide some kind of security that a novel is worth the time and will provide a satisfying reading experience. 

If I had a choice, every book I owned would be designed by the Folio Society. They are the experts when it comes to beautiful designs, perfect book covers, thought and attention. A book cover will always influence our opinion. Every book obsessive is used to certain genres having a certain type of cover. Whether it’s crime fiction with dark, gritty images or Penguin Classics containing iconic photos, there is an expectation over the type of covers one expects to see. If these aren’t there, we will be far more likely to discard the book and consider something else. 

It is not simply the cover of a book, but also where it appears within a shop that is of crucial importance. In Waterstones, an anticipated new release will often have a whole table devoted just to that book. When Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments was released, cover after cover appeared as soon as I entered the bookshop. The same was the case for Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. The volume of books presented suggests the publishers believe the novel will sell well and is deserving of praise. Though I’ve not yet read Mantel’s trilogy, its prominence in the media means its place on my ‘to be read’ list is unavoidable. 

I imagine my choice of literary reads will always be shaped by appearance and reviews

Rave reviews stem not just from newspapers, but fellow authors or iconic individuals as well. No doubt publishers send books all the time to those individuals in the hope a quote will be given. It’s because publishers know readers are likely to support books from new authors that are endorsed by renowned individuals. Whenever I see a book containing a quote, say, from Stephen Fry or Mary Beard, I am more likely to pick it up and buy it. It is again about the security of wisdom. I don’t have time to read all these new books; those individuals, whose judgements I trust, have clearly decided which books are worthy of a read. Similarly, if I see an author has been shortlisted (or even long-listed) for the Booker Prize, the ultimate literary reward, I am again more likely to consider reading the novel. It is all about judgements. 

There will always be reads that surprise us. Ideas will be contained that we had never considered, stories we had discounted and adventures we didn’t believe possible. While we may not remember their precise plot in years to come, we should certainly remember how it made us feel. That is at the heart of reading and, in an ideal world, would always triumph any cover design. I imagine my choice of literary reads will always be shaped by appearance and reviews. But I know that, in the long term, the emotions and memories a book creates will be of far greater importance and value.

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