foreign affairs.

As usual, my policy against buying more books (due to already having a "to-read" pile taller than something really tall) has been a total failure. I have no defense, at least no good one. I could say that I only pick books that look really really good and are really really cheap, but that has always been the case. That's how I got too many books in the first place. I have tightened my standards. I only buy books that are major award winners or by authors that I trust. Unfortunately, that still leads to me bringing them home in piles, though smaller piles than before. What I really need to do is to stop looking, to pass by the book section completely. And I sometimes try to do that, but then something catches my eye and I figure if there is one good one, there are probably more, and then it's all over.

The Durham Rescue Mission, a gigantic thrift store that still can't hold all its stock, has a free pile of books. Getting tossed into the free pile seems to be luck of the draw, as there is no consistency in condition or quality. One of the books I recently rescued from the pile up was this one:
Had I just been scanning the shelves, I never would have picked up this book. All you can tell from the side is that it's a pulp paperback, a mass-produced romance novel. The cover, featuring a man holding a woman with a mysterious smile on her face, with vaguely European landmarks in the misty background, looks like a bodice-ripper. The back cover features a glowing review excerpt from Cosmo, which is not a periodical I go to for book recommendations. Here is the blurb:
She met him on the plane. A most unsuitable man, she thought. Certainly not someone a sensible American professor on her way to do some serious research in London should consider becoming involved with. Yet there was something about Chuck Mumpson that Vinnie Miner found oddly irresistible...
Handsome, married yet separated, Fred Turner is another American in London doing research. But his days gathering facts in the British Museum pale besides his nights in the arms of the lovely television actress Lady Rosemary Radley...
Two Americans abroad. Two foreign affairs of the most unlikely sort. Two lives opening to passions and choices only dreamed of - embarking on journeys that would change them both forever.

This book was not marketed to me. I once stopped into a used bookstore that was nestled unobtrusively into a strip mall. I was hoping that I had found a hidden gem, but the place was wall to wall romance novels. My general feeling about these books is that they are sort of all alike. I was amazed that there were so many different books, since the genre as a whole seemed so formulaic. The lady running the store tried very hard to help me by pointing me to the Mystery Romance, the Historical Romance, the Western Romance, and I don't remember what else. I spent about five minutes with a very narrow shelf labelled "Classics" before thanking her and scooting out the door. I didn't see it, and if I had I would not have noticed it, but it's entirely possible that Foreign Affairs was somewhere in that little shop, maybe in the Overseas Romance section.

But I did see it in the free pile of the Durham Resuce Mission, and because it was in a pile and not on a shelf, I happened to see that magical little gold seal on the front: "Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for fiction." And my brain could not compute what that seal was doing on what looked like a completely standard romance novel. Of course, the answer is that it is a romance novel, in that it is about relationships. It also, according to the Pulitzer committee (and Cosmo's book reviewer), is a dang good book.

I looked up the book on Amazon to see what kind of cover it had now. It looks like the kind of book I would have pulled off a shelf. The marketing of this edition is no less of a formula than it was for the other. It's just that the formula adds up to a different kind of reader. Me, for instance.
I do my book-buying based mostly on covers. I have been impressed with my ability to consistently pick good books. In fact, I've been getting a little smug about it. A lot of times, I can't remember where I got a book or what made me pick it up, but when I finish it, I find that I liked it. Good job, me, you rock at finding the awesome book among the thousands of ones that suck. But maybe this is not so much a matter of me knowing how to pick a good book as the marketing people knowing how to sell me a book that I will like, i.e. think is good. It is their job to help people find books that they will like. So they pick a design and a description and a selection of positive reviews that will attract the right people. Sometimes you need multiple editions to attract all the disparate groups of people, each of them convinced that they don't like "those other" kinds of books.

I suppose you could say that the lesson for me here was that I should not judge books by their covers. The text inside either edition of Foreign Affairs is the same, and it is what won the Pulitzer. Just because an author uses romance as her form doesn't mean that she can't write a heck of a book.

But the cover of a book has less to do with the quality of the contents than who the publishers are trying to sell the book to. It seems that I should judge books by their covers, because someone out there has got me pegged. They know what kinds of books I like, and they know what to do to make me buy them.

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