I’m firmly convinced that just about all our pleasures and disappointments in life come down to expectations, and the more we can rid ourselves of firmly-fixed expectations about what a person or a place or an experience will or should be like, the more we’ll be able to enjoy it for what it is.
That said, we can hardly do away with them altogether. Unless we want to be like Mr. Short-Term Memory, we remember past experiences and set up expectations of the future based upon them.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how this relates to books. If we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers (and, of course, we all do that — that’s why publishers spend so much on cover design!) how do we judge them? By the expectations we bring to them, of course — based on similar types of books we’ve read, or books by the same author, or recommendations from friends, or reviews we’ve read, or awards the book has won. Occasionally I’ve had the experience of randomly picking up a book in the library or bookstore with no preconceptions whatsoever, but for the most part, most books come with some baggage attached.
Over at Compulsive Overreader, I’ve reviewed the last few books I’ve read. They included:
1) a book by one of my favourite authors, which I was almost afraid to read because it might not live up to my expectations
2) a book by an author I’d never read before, which I fully expected not to like and which totally surprised me
3) a book by an author I used to love but had grown tired of, to whom I was giving another try.
No matter how much we try to open our minds, we bring our expectations to books just as we do to everything else. But I think it’s important to keep a lighthearted relationship with our expectations, remembering that an author we’ve loved in the past has to win our love anew with each new book, and that a book that we might have dismissed as overhyped and trendy might actually turn out to be fresh, funny and heartbreaking. We can’t avoid having expectations, but we can avoid being boxed in by them.
Of course, as with everything book-related, it makes me reflect on my own writing. I’ve already blogged about my own concerns about not being consistent as a writer, always trying something new so that readers probably don’t know what to expect from me (of course, the advantage of not being particularly famous or well-known is that most people have no expectations of me whatsoever, so at least they can’t be disappointed).
Sometimes expectations are based on something other than a writer’s previous work, though. I’ve had people tell me in all seriousness that they loved one of my Biblical novels “even though I don’t usually like anything published by Adventist publishing houses,” and others confess to me at book signings that By the Rivers of Brooklyn “was much better than I expected a Newfoundland book to be.” I guess I’m glad those people were willing to let me transcend their admittedly low expectations. I’d like to get to a point as a writer where enough people knew my name to expect a good, engaging story when they picked up one of my books, but I don’t ever really expect to have a “brand” that will provide instant expectations whenever anyone sees my name on a book cover.
What about you? How do you judge a book? By its cover? By reviews? By the author’s reputation? Or do you try not to judge at all?