Browsing the Library Shelves

I love to browse the shelves of a library. As a teenager I was always looking for something new to read so I started what I called browsing missions. One mission I would look for small books; on another mission I would look for bright-colored covers. I would walk up and down the aisles of the library looking for something that caught my eye or matched my mission. These browsing sessions have netted me a number of good reads and some not-so-good reads. Over the years I have learned it all has to do with how we pick the books we see while browsing.

To help you get an idea of what I have learned, picture this:
You come into the library and head to the new book section. You spend some time browsing the spines and covers of the books, a few look interesting. You pull one off the shelf and flip to the back cover (or the inside jacket cover) to read the summary. It sounds like something you might like so you turn to the first page. You read the first line, maybe the first paragraph and it is a strong start. You think to yourself, perhaps I will enjoy this book. You take the book up to the circulation desk and check it out. 
Now you are home. You are settled into your favorite reading spot and you open the book you picked up at the library. Like you remember, it has a strong start and you know how it is going to end so let us see how it gets there. You spend some time reading and slowly you realize, the middle is lagging in this book. Hmm, you think, what should I make for dinner tomorrow? Bob and Lisa are coming over, and Bob does not like fish, but salmon is on sale this week. Maybe we can have salmon tonight. You check your watch—you have time to go to the store and buy that salmon and still not be rushed making dinner. You put the book aside, and go to the grocery store. 
Two weeks later you get an email from the library reminding you the book you checked out is due in a few days. Hmmm, you wonder, where did I put that book, I never did go back to reading it after I went to the store for salmon.
A lot of us browse books in a similar way to this scenario. But is it the best way to browse for a book?

Now picture this:
You come into the library and head to the new book section. You spend some time browsing the spines and covers of the books, a few look interesting. You pull one off the shelf and flip to the back cover (or the inside jacket cover) to read the summary. It sounds like something you might like so you turn to page 99. You read a passage of intense dialogue. Interesting, you think to yourself, perhaps I will enjoy this book. You take the book up to the circulation desk and check it out. 
Now you are home. You are settled into your favorite reading spot and you open the book you picked up at the library. You start reading the book and the next thing you know it is 9 pm and you have completely forgotten dinner. However, you now know the context of that intense conversation and cannot wait for book number 2 to come out in 8 months. 
The next day you return to the library for another book and start the process all over again.
This is The Page 99 Test. It is attributed to the author Ford Maddox Ford, who said, “Open the book to page 99 and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” The idea holds some truth and has been tested time and again by readers and researchers. The first scenario I asked you to imagine is what a lot of publishers and author are hoping for: You will read the start of the book and get sucked into the story. Having taken a number of classes on writing and publishing, I can tell you that the concept of having a "strong start" is a key idea being taught. So, if a book starts out strong, people are likely to pick it up and give it a try.

This can be a problem because a lot of people dislike not finishing books so they will slog through a middle that might not be the best written piece of literature. The thought behind the Page 99 test is that by this point, the book should be hitting its stride and be able to reveal a better slice of the text. The characters should be well into the plot of the story or the author into their argument in a non-fiction book.
Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis


I do not read a lot of mysteries but I have decided to give more of them a try. So I walked over to the new book section and looked for a mystery that caught my eye. It happened to be Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis. The book is the right size, the cover is creepy, yet not really off-putting and the description on the back intrigued me. It starts out interesting enough describing a lake and how a body could be hidden in the shallows.

Then I turn to page 99:
Greenwood Valley was an eighties subdivision of sprawling ranch and mock-Tudor homes. DeMarco calculated that Denton would need ten minutes to get from his home to campus, maybe more if he ran any errands on the way or stopped for a cappuccino. In any case, he probably wouldn’t leave the house before one in the afternoon. It was now only 10:47. 
“Plenty of time for me to ruin his day,” DeMarco said.
From reading the back cover I know DeMarco is the police detective, but who is Denton and why does DeMarco want to know how long it takes to get to campus from his house and why does DeMarco want to ruin Denton’s day?
Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

I am going on vacation so I will also want a non-fiction book to read. With that in mind I spotted Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

Turning to page 99 I read:
Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote lyrics to Hamilton during long Sunday morning walks in the park with his dog, freestyling on top of beats or melodies he composed at home. 
Okay. You hooked me with a mention of Lin-Manuel and Hamilton, but that is not enough to tell me that a book is worth reading so I skim down the page a bit more.
The idea that walking relaxes and usefully diverts the mind received a boost from a study led by architect and neuroscientist Jenny Roe. She placed EEGs on the scalps of walkers in Edinburgh and recorded their brains’ activity as they walked. When she examined the data, she found that she could tell from their brain waves when people were walking through parks and green space and when they were in busy commercial areas…
This book made the trip to the circulation desk because the ease in which the author can move from interesting facts about famous people into the research and how it is not bogged down in technical jargon or wording. Just what I like in a non-fiction book.

This method is not foolproof; you are bound to pick up a book or two that are duds in your reading bubble, but you may also find a book that, had you just read the first page and back cover, you would have put back on the shelf. Browsing the library is a great way to find new books to read and can help to expand your reading. Since discovering The Page 99 Test, my browsing sessions have helped me find new books and authors I might have otherwise passed over.

Happy Browsing!

—Amelia R.

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