This guest post is by Professor Shirley Williams of the University of Reading, who is an avid reader, and had an ambitious target of reading 50 books a year, on top of her not inconsiderable workload as Professor of Learning Technologies at the School of Systems Engineering, when she was my personal tutor. What makes a page turner for you? In this article, Thoughts from a reader, Shirley gives some valuable insights into mistakes to avoid and how to hook your reader in.

Throw it across the room, or not?

Life is too short for me to suffer by reading a book I am not enjoying. But I like reading and I do not like to leave a book unfinished. I try to avoid what I will consider un-finishable books, but once I have started reading, what makes me want to give up on a book?

  • Texts with typos: even the best proof readers can let occasional errors through, but a book that doesn’t appear to have even met a proof reader will be discarded by me, and unfortunately such mistakes support an argument against reading anything that is self-published.
  • Predictable plots: you know, the ones with the sort of storyline where the hero has lost someone or something and spends time searching for them/it, before eventually finding them/it. Although I must admit my toddler grandsons really enjoy Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s Fox’s Socks, which has that sort of plot.
  • Novels described as “sensitively written”: for me this is shorthand for something that is slow-going with too many words spent painting the backdrop and not enough story. My book club read Pat Barker’s Life Class and I was tempted to give up on it as I felt it was slow-going, but others had enjoyed it and commented on her excellent description of the setting, and one person used the phrase “sensitively written”.
  • Books that are too long: I do not mind long books and I like a lot of Ken Follett’s, but I found Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch had too much padding. It was very good in parts, particularly towards the end, but up to about halfway it spent a lot of time hovering around the “I am going to give up on this” pile. However, long books (with or without padding) do have their fans. I have a friend who selects his book based on the cost per word.
  • Too much sex: once on holiday I threw away a book by Jilly Cooper that I mistook for a novel. Sex has its place in books but I prefer novels where there is a story not just endless romps! However E.L. James has sold over 100 million copies of her erotic books, so the genre does have fans.
  • Formulaic stories: I used to enjoy reading novels by Tom Clancy, but after a while I felt the books were written to a formula, suggested by the author credits, which seemed (to me) to indicate that someone else had written the book based on a plot line from Clancy. Actually, the grandsons are also big fans of Osborne Children Books series, That’s not my …, so I guess there is a place for formulae.

Is it a page-turner?

So how do I avoid starting to read books that I will not enjoy? Well largely, I go on recommendations from friends and family who have similar tastes to myself. I do look at the books my Kindle reader recommends – as it has sometimes suggested books I have read on paper and enjoyed. My book club is now reading The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, and having started it, I most certainly will not continue reading it! Much too much of a “sensitively written” long book, for my liking. Instead I am reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which may be long but I am finding it a page turner!

Thoughts from a reader; life is too short…

My bookclub is causing me some concern as of the books that we have read since I joined, I have only really enjoyed one. The others were unsatisfactory in some manner, but then again it is quite enlightening to hear others talk about the work, and to match that against my own views. Maybe I need to find another group that reads books that match my taste so that I have more chance of the selected book meeting my criteria of enjoyable.

About the author

Shirley Williams is Professor Emerita and National Teaching Fellow at the University of Reading, UK. She is a grandmother and retired professor. She likes people, technology, reading and making things. She also enjoys travelling and food, as well as spending time with  family and friends.

Shirley’s Blog is here.