CAUTION! Just because I like a book doesn't mean you'll like it too. Although if you like my writing, there may be a greater chance that you'll share some of my reading tastes than if you find my blog ill-written -- in which case I sincerely hope you find reading material which pleases you better, and recommend Stephen King and John Grisham, reckoning strictly from statistics.
The only way to know for sure, of course, is to read some of it. But there are so many books. How do I decide which ones to try? Here are some of the ways.
-- If a book is written in Latin and I haven't heard of it, I will be intrigued. (If I have heard of, there's a chance I already either have a copy or have decided I'm not interested. Life is to short for Cicero and Seneca.) Being intrigued at first glance is not always the same, of course, as eventually liking a book. But I've got this thing about Latin, seeing as how it's been in use in our civilization for thousands of years and was used by Caesar and Columbus and Milton and Spinoza, besides all of those kings and queens and Popes.
-- If a book is written by a Nobel laureate in literature, the chances are over 85% that I will like it very much. Other prizes aren't nearly so strong an indicator for me, but the Nobel folks and I seem to be on a similar wavelength. Except that they've given it to too many Scandinavian writers. Astonishingly, they managed to avoid giving it either to Ibsen or Strindberg, and still gave it to way way too many Scandinavians. Aside from 85% or so of the Nobel Literature laureates, authors whom I like generally are good guides to other authors I will like.
One notable exception is Thomas Pynchon's rave for Tom Robbins, nota bene, that's Tom Robbins, the novelist, not Tim Robbins, the tall, thin actor who supports the Democratic Party and used to be married to Susan Sarandon. I'm not saying Robbins is a bad writer, he's just -- well, for me personally, he's not nearly in the same class as Pynchon. Your mileage may vary, as Germans say. (They say that in English, about books or movies or whatever. It's weird.)
-- Lots of books have many blurbs on their covers. Sometimes these blurbs are attributed to a publication. For example, "Brilliant and deft." -- The New York Times Book Review. or "A pulse-pounding page-turner." -- Publishers Weekly. By and large, these anonymous blurbs mean less to me than ones attributed to specific people. Especially if they're attributed to Nobel Literature laureates or other writers I like. If King or Grisham recommends it, it's probably not for me. There are some exceptions to this: I cannot recall seeing a single blurb attributed to an individual rather than to a publication on the cover or first pages of any volume by Gore Vidal, although plenty of writers of whom I thought highly, thought highly of Gore. Strange. Perhaps when a writer produces big blockbusting bestsellers, and Vidal certainly did, publishers prefer anonymous blurbs. I don't know.
Nietzsche's reactions to authors are amazingly predictive of mine. The 1st half of p 65 of the insel taschenbuch-edition of Goetzen-Daemmerung (ISBN 3-458-34380-6) could almost have been written by me. Nietzsche compares Carlyle to puke -- nailed it. I hadn't read read any Carlyle before I read Goetzen-Daemmerung -- why didn't I listen about Carlyle? Well, anyway, I found for myself that I too find him absolutely disgusting, and now here I am warning you. Sorry to bring up something so unpleasant as puke, but, assuming my advice is as accurate for you as Nietzsche's is for me, I'm warning you.
-- If I've really liked one book by an author, I'm very rarely disappointed in others of his or her books. I'm not counting unfinished books which have been published posthumously, because, duh, they're unfinished. The biggest exception to my rule about non-posthumous books is the novel Ravelstein by Saul Bellow. That one had me shaking my head all the way through and muttering curses at Allan Bloom, neocon monster, Bellow's close friend, the author of The Closing of the American Mind and clearly the real-life inspiration for the title figure Ravelstein.
-- Different publishers go about their business in different ways. A book published by Oxford or Farrar, Straus and Giroux is more likely to be my kind of book than one published by Simon & Schuster, although here again, there may be exceptions published by Simon & Schuster or other lowest-common-denominator, their-books-are-in-grocery-stores-and-Wal-Mart's publisher. Those exceptions, those glorious exceptions are those few authors like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and John Cheever who are both popular and good.