Readers talk a big game about not judging books by their covers. And it’s true that book covers are often misleading, or out of date — who hasn’t read a great book in a terrible, movie tie-in wrapping? Then again, there’s something to be said for picking up a book purely because it peaks your interest. You see a dusty old volume in the corner of the used bookstore, or a brand new hardcover in a shiny new display, and you decide to just read it, reviews be damned. I mean, yes, book lists and reviews are great for finding good reading material. Recommendations from friends are priceless. But nothing a beats a book you find in the wild. Here are a few of the books that I’ve read over the years, without having any idea what they were about.
Some of these books I discovered in secondhand bookstores, and purchased for a dollar or two. Some of them were handed to me as a kid by my father, who knew that I liked cats and dragons (this is how I ended up reading A Game of Thrones at age ten). At least one I found on the side of the road. All of them I read without Googling or reading reviews or, in some cases, without even reading the synopsis on the back cover:
‘The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume I’ by Diana Wynne Jones
I have a vivid memory of standing in the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble as a child, wondering vaguely where my parents had gone (my family tends to adopt an “every man for himself” mentally when confronted with any store large enough to have as escalator). That’s when my dad came around the corner, holding a thick book with a cat on the cover. “This book has a cat on the cover,” he informed me, and that was all the information I needed. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci: Volume I turned out to be two novels in one book, called Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant. Neither were about cats directly. Rather, they were both about a powerful, nine-lived enchanter called Chrestomanci, who could travel between the multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds to save people from various magical dilemmas. It was as though someone had thoughtfully cataloged every idea I had for a fantasy novel, but was too young to articulate, and remixed them into this beautiful hodgepodge of a series. I read each novel twice, then dragged my dad back to Barnes & Noble for the next volume. Once I finished Chrestomanci, I went on to every other Diana Wynne Jones book I could get my hands on. Her bizarre, parallel universe stories are still some of my favorite fantasy novels of all time (even if the main character wasn’t a cat).
‘Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers’ by Grant Naylor
I want to say that I found this one at the used bookstore/diner that my family always stops at when we drive through Connecticut. The actual name of the establishment is the Traveler’s Rest, but it is known by us as “Turkey Books,” because those are the two words on the large yellow sign out front. Every meal comes with three free books, but they are rarely books that one would seek out for purchase. I think I found this particular book downstairs, in the bookstore proper, tucked away on the Science Fiction shelf. I liked that it was set in space, and the title was funny (this must of been during the prolonged Hitchhiker’s Guide and Monty Python phase of my adolescence). So I bought it, read it, loved it, and only then realized that it was, in fact, the novelization of a British sci-fi sitcom from the ’80s. Still, it’s a delightfully weird little sci-fi book set three million years into the future, about the last living member of the human race and his companions: an uptight hologram and a highly evolved, very fashionable cat.
‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders
OK, so I had read some of George Saunders’ short stories before finding a brand new hardcover copy of Lincoln in the Bardo lying on a street corner in Brooklyn around two in the morning. But I had not read much about his award-winning experimental novel (besides that it was about Lincoln and maybe ghosts?). I simply picked it up off the ground and started at page one. I barely put it down again until I reached the end. It is certainly one of the most lovely, lyrical books I’ve ever read. Not to mention that I’m a huge sucker for history and ghosts. I know that Lincoln in the Bardo hardly needs my praise in addition to the Man Booker Prize, but rarely have I found such an intensely moving book lying on the ground.
‘Kangaroos in the Kitchen: The Story of Animal Talent Scouts’ by Lorrain D’Essen
This book is notable in that it once disintegrated in my hands while I was on the subway, leaving me with a lap full of crumbly, ancient book-binding glue. My school library was throwing it out, and I was intrigued by the cutesy title on what looked like a decaying academic textbook. Kangaroos in the Kitchen actually turned out to be the autobiography of Lorrain D’Essen, founder of Animal Talent Scouts, Inc., an agency for animal actors in the 1940s and ’50s. She lived in a New York City brownstone with a number of dogs, llamas, sheep, deer, cats, monkeys, and the titular kangaroo (as well as a rotating cast of her other “clients”). The story is dated (no one needs a license for any of these wild animals I guess??), but D’Essen’s animal training program of using only positive reinforcement is surprisingly forward-thinking. It’s also a pretty wild account of living in a home zoo and training various animals for the big screen of the mid-20th Century. Some of her weirder assignments included finding an Ostrich to lay an egg on command, finding a live shark for an educational program, and getting ten cows to march in time to the song “When the Cows Come Home.”
‘The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes’ by Neil Gaiman
I already liked Neil Gaiman as a teenager, and I liked comic books (mostly Thor and Archie and The Fantastic Four). So I figured that I would like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics. I didn’t bother to look up the plot, or even the premise. I thought the books would probably be like my favorite super comics, but with more magic and whatnot. Little did I know that volume one would feature a hallway made of human flesh, a trip to actual hell, and a chapter in which someone’s hand is nailed to a diner wall. I hadn’t read much horror at all, let alone R-rated body horror with illustrations. It was a far cry from Riverdale. I was thoroughly nauseated. I was also intrigued. Lucky for me, I decided to give the second volume a shot, and soon found myself reading and then re-reading every last issue of The Sandman. I forced all my friends to read about the personified Dream and his surreal adventures, too, until all of us were thoroughly obsessed.