A friend of mine discovered Judy Budnitz’s writing because he read and loved Matthew Derby’s Super Flat Times, which has a blurb from her that reads: “Matthew Derby’s writing is a refreshing shock to the system. Read it and be entranced, enchanted, transported. He is truly one of a kind.” So my friend read her writing, figuring if Budnitz liked Derby the way he liked Derby, he’d probably like Budnitz as well.
But this seems like a basic problem with blurbs. There’s praise on the back cover of the current edition of Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening from Alice Sebold: “An extraordinary novel.” But if you’re one of the many readers who liked The Lovely Bones (I remember sitting in a restaurant in Andover, Massachusetts, years ago, overhearing a woman describing the plot to her dinner companion, who was appalled, but the Sebold fan insisted that she never read any books, ever, but this one was really, really good), and you’re in the fiction section of the bookstore or the library, and you’re browsing around the Sebolds, and you’re hungry for something new—maybe something that the person who wrote the book you just enjoyed would recommend—then how would you ever make your way over to the Mortons?
This isn’t the best example, because if you were a persistent enough reader with access to the Internet you could probably find the Alice Sebold “Meet the Writers” page on Barnes & Noble’s Web site, where you can read her answer to the question “If you had a book club, what would it be reading, and why?” Which is the original context (I’m assuming?) of those three words of praise: “I do think it is an extraordinary novel and the idea of having an older main character is always compelling for a book group, I think.” But most of the time, the problem remains. (Except in the case of, say, a face-out, front-of-store display of a relatively unknown author’s book with an established author’s recommendation on the cover. But maybe that’s the publicist’s wet dream that explains why blurbs persist in the first place?)
The solution? Forget e-books, I say! Book publishers, you want to get fancy? You want to go digital in a way that assuages your deep fears of the technological future? Here’s my recommendation: keep books the brilliantly designed physical objects they are, but implant a small computer (and a tiny little GPS system) in the binding—connected wirelessly to a much larger computer somewhere, that keeps each individual book constantly updated—with a button or two sticking out from the spine, and maybe also some cute knobs and blinking lights, that all work in concert as a reverse blurb-finder. But how? you ask. Well, say you’re holding a copy of The Lovely Bones, and you loved it, so you don’t really need to know what The New York Times had to say about it, but you do want to know what books Alice Sebold might be recommending these days. So you push the reverse blurb-finder button, and presto!, like a high-tech dowsing rod, the book starts tugging you in the direction of the nearest book she’s blurbed.
The blurbs themselves, of course, would have to have a tracking chip implanted in the front or back cover directly underneath them, also connected wirelessly to the same centralized computer system. Or perhaps they’d have to be printed in some kind of special electromagnetic ink.
Or I guess you, the reader, could just leave your desk, and go out into the world, and hope to find a savvy librarian or bookseller. Or even—God bless them—other human beings who read non-professionally!