Forgive the assumption, but it seems like a pretty safe bet that you, dear Ooligan-blog reader, are the sort of person who spends a not-insignificant amount of time exploring physical and digital bookshelves in search of the next book to add to your “To Read” stack. If you’re anything like me, your approach to this search and selection process is almost entirely grounded in instinctual intuition and impulsive whim. Prowling the stacks, I become a literary flaneur, indiscriminately sampling any and every volume that catches my eye and frequently slipping it back onto the shelf just as quickly.

Except my bookshop behavior clearly can’t be so mindless and haphazard as it feels, because my “To Read” stack—the titles I actually end up carrying home and granting some of my precious reading time to—actually tends to look fairly coherent. Even the books I buy entirely on impulse, knowing nothing about them, fall into a single category: they are all “Books I’m Interested in Reading.”

What exactly is that phantom property, that elusive essence, that qualifies a select set of books for induction into our exclusive personal catalogs? Do we pick the books with the cleverest titles? Those with the niftiest covers? The books plastered with literary-prize stickers, or those prominently enthroned at the front of the store? When we perceive a newly discovered book as “a challenging read,” what exactly leads us to make that judgement? And are we intrigued by the challenge, or do we trot away in search of sweeter, lower-hanging fruit?

In short, what are we looking for in books? What do we read for? These questions are far more complicated and obscure than they have any right to be. Leisure time and mental focus are among modern citizens’ most limited and treasured resources, so it’s especially disconcerting to realize that we’re often not wholly privy to the underlying logic of how we came to be reading one book while allowing another to pass us by. Ultimately, there may be no accounting for literary taste, at least not in any thoroughly satisfactory way. Still, the next time you’re on the hunt for fresh meat, take a moment to ask yourself the question once put to Bill Hicks by a nosy waffle-house waitress:

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