Your Reading Life

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover . . . or by Its First Line

Do you judge a book by its cover? By its first line? Until you read the entire novel, you shouldn’t judge a book at all.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

They don’t write opening lines like they used to.

This past weekend I was browsing my local independent bookstore for some new books to read.  As I’m not made of money, I limited myself to paperbacks.  There’s an age-old adage about not judging a book by its cover, so instead I choose to judge a book by its first sentence.

This is not a method that has served me well with modern literature.

In school, my professors stressed the importance of the first sentence.  “You need a hook to grab the reader!” my English teacher Mr. Moran would lecture us tiny eighth graders as we turned in five-paragraph-essay after essay.  “And by God it better not be a dictionary definition.”  I would look away, shamefaced, as I threw out my opening paragraph, only to begin again.

Lately, however, I’m noticing that the more current authors I read don’t seem to understand the importance of the “hook.”  More and more writers seem to embrace the “slow burn” style of writing, with a minor hook that sucks the reader in slowly . . . if at all.  I have also noticed that sometimes a book can have a great hook and a terrible plot.

In other words, I no longer know how to trust what I’m reading. A great opening line used to promise a great story. Now there’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s blatant false-advertising.

Do I trust literary criticism?  I’ve read some perfectly dreadful books that were highly reviewed. After all, everyone’s taste is different.  Some prefer chocolate, others want vanilla, and some weirdos prefer sherbert.

In the end, I think it comes down to trusting your gut.

I no longer just read the first line of a novel . . . I read the first few pages. Sure, I’m hogging space in the cramped aisles of a bookstore, but usually I’m surrounded by other bibliophiles doing the exact same thing. If I’m still not sold on the book, then I check out the reviews. If something the reviewers say piques my interest, I’ll buy the book.  The worst thing that could happen is I end up hating the book. Even then, I am still supporting an independent bookstore.  Plus, if I don’t like the novel, there’s usually someone I know who will.

I’m not complaining.  The fact that it’s harder to tell ‘good’ literature from ‘bad’ (whatever that means) has introduced me to works I never would have considered reading in the past.

For example, I wasn’t wowed by the opening to Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder.  I almost set it down back on the “New and Noteworthy” table.  But my friend’s rave review caused me to read more than the opening paragraph. By that evening, I had cancelled dinner plans so I could finish reading it. I now claim that novel is the best book I read in 2012.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.  You can’t judge a book by its first line.  Maybe the important thing is that until you read the entire novel, you shouldn’t judge a book at all.

Do you agree? How do you decide whether or not to read a book? Tell us in a comment!

We’re collecting the best first lines of all time. Share your favorite first line!

About the Author

EMILY ANSARA BAINES is the author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative literary magazine and AngeLingo. She graduated with honors from USC, where she studied creative writing under Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle. One day Emily will live in Paris and speak French while wearing a beret, but these days she makes do with hiding out in the bookstores of Los Angeles. Her favorite word is murmur. Visit Emily online on Twitter @LiteraryQueen.

  • Valerie Valicento

    I judge a book by it’s last chapter–not epilogue, chapter. If the ending is good, I want to find out how they get there.

    • http://www.readitforward.com/ Kira, editor @ Read It Forward

      Whoa. Wait a sec, Valerie, are you telling us that you read the last chapter FIRST?!

      • Valerie Valicento

        Yep. If it’s good, I want to know how they get there. I realize it’s weird, but reading the first page doesn’t give me enough information about the story. I could read the first chapter, but sometimes it doesn’t get good until later.

  • Celeste

    I have a 50 page rule, if it doesn’t really grab me by then, I move on to something else. If I’m still on the fence at page 50, I then extend it to page 100. Too many books out there to read to stay with something you really aren’t enjoying.

    • http://www.readitforward.com/ Kira, editor @ Read It Forward

      I’m that way, too. Although more times than I’d like to admit I end up finishing a book I’m “meh” about. I need to let that go – like you said, too many good books!

      • techeditor

        I usually finish books, too, even if they aren’t that great. For me, that’s because I like to review books for Internet sites, and I think it’s unfair to review a book I haven’t completely read. If I just can’t go on, I don’t review it.

    • techeditor

      That’s Nancy Pearl’s “Rule of 50.” I agree

  • N

    I like to read the first few pages and if it doesn’t grab me, I’ll move on. But I also like sherbert (the most peresecuted group of people that ever was) so who knows if I’m doing it right.

    My favorite first line: All this happened, more or less.

    • http://www.readitforward.com/ Kira, editor @ Read It Forward

      Hahaha. We sherbert lovers have to stick together!

      Slaughterhouse-Five, right?

  • techeditor

    First, “Until you read the entire novel, you shouldn’t judge a book at all.” This is not true. If you have to read two chapters or half the book before it gets interesting. that’s not a good book. I’ve read quite a few of those. I gave them three out of five stars, even though the second half of the book was excellent.That’s not a good book; it is a book that was half bad.
    I base my book choices on book reviews. They may not be honest. But if there are loads of good reviews, I’m interested.
    However, in the absence of book reviews, if I have to base my decision on the book, alone, I go by the cover to decide which books to eliminate. If the cover has a picture of a bare-chested man, OUT. If the cover has a picture of a queen, OUT. if the cover has a picture of someone with fangs and blood on their face, OUT. And so on.
    My favorite lines from a book aren’t the first lines but the second and third paragraphs, which is close enough. I can’t quote them rigiht now, but they’re from CUTTING FOR STONE, which turned out to be, probably, the best book I ever read.

  • Lady_D

    I judge a book by a combination of factors. Cover, Synopsis, Reviews… and more. I try to avoid long excerpts, but resort to them when available, especially if the book is newly published and thus has no reviews.

  • Shakera Blakney

    I have to say… you will find this weird… I like to read the ending first. If I like the ending, I’ll buy the book so I can find out how they got to this point. If I don’t really like the ending, then I’ll check reviews to see why I should read it anyway. If the reviews average (on a star rating) to be 3, I’ll buy it out of curiosity. If it averages out to be under 3 I won’t buy it.