"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

06 December 2016

Getting Judgy

In a former life, before I became a librarian, I was an English teacher. One year I came up with the idea that our students should have a Young Authors Contest at school where all junior and senior high students would submit a piece to be judged, and prizes would be awarded to the best works.

Then I realized someone would have to read all of these stories in order to choose the best one, and I nearly lost it because no English teacher on earth has time to spare for bonus reading like that. Thus I came up with a system that has served me well when I've had to find the "best of" or candidates for the "best of" in a pile of stories, books, artwork, etc.

I call it Judging via Sturgeon. Sturgeon's Law posits that "ninety percent of everything is crap," which seems to hold true, for the most part. There are very few stand out movies, books, etc. That's why the good ones stand out. I keep Sturgeon in mind when evaluating for awards because even if I have five hundred entries, only one (or two or whatever) will actually win.

When I was teaching, I was given an entire grade level's worth of stories to read. I was supposed to pick the top three or the top five or something like that, and someone else would read those and choose the best one. This means that 95% of what I was reading was not going to win. So I quickly eliminated stories that used poor grammar or had multiple misspellings or did not grab me in the first paragraph. This doesn't necessarily mean they weren't good stories, but they weren't the BEST, and I was supposed to find the best.

Now as a librarian I have served on ALA's Stonewall Book Award Committee. I am also a judge for the 2016 CYBIL awards. In both cases I have been handed a giant stack of books and asked to choose the best ones, and in both cases I have used Sturgeon's Law once again.

When it comes to books, I give them a fifty-page test. If the first fifty pages compel me to keep reading, that's good. If not, then they go into the "definitely no" or "probably no" pile. The "probably no" pile gets an additional fifty pages. If an average book, which is probably around 400 pages, can't keep my attention or compel me to read after the first 25%, it's unlikely that will change later on, and I'd hate to say to people, "This book is really great, but you have to get to page 243 before it gets there."

Since I'm reading to judge for awards and not for personal pleasure, a book has got to be pretty good to pass the one hundred page mark. For each of these awards I've read over one hundred books, and there's simply no time for me to completely read every single one of those books, but there will be some standout books that will require slow reading or rereading or perusing of reviews and opinions of others. Those few books end up on a shortlist, which I use to make my recommendations. This helps maintain my sanity and prevents my eyeballs from falling out of my head from overuse.

How about you? Do you have any tips for quickly eliminating books from a list? Let me know in the comments!

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