The perils of buying secondhand books

I’m a voracious reader. I am. I’m a six books a week guy. In answer to your unspoken question, no I do not have a proper job. And within broad limits I’ll read anything. I’m an adherent of the charity shop school of reading. If someone else has read it, it may just be worth reading. So a second hand copy of Moby Dick, yes, has to worth the effort. Canterbury Tales? Yep., but there are loads of non-classics around that are worth a look. But as they aren’t classics, you have to take a bit of a flier. Cover designs may help. Blurbs may help. They might.

So, here are some things you may want to bear in mind when buying secondhand books.

Covers to avoid

Bright primary colours with a line drawing of some ditzy girly struggling with a load of shopping and dropping her mobile phone

I’m sure you know what I mean here. These books are likely to be a no-go area. It’s not going to be very good. Probably not. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’ll likely ignore you, but you’ll feel better about yourself. I’m a caring sharing sort of guy.

Lots of exploding helicopters and speedboats on the front

Oh dear, hang your head in shame Clive Cussler. Really. Think of the damage to the trees of this planet your ramblings have inflicted. Acts of contrition are in order here. It won’t help. There’s a special circle of hell waiting for you and your ilk. Just learn to write then it may all go away.

I speak from a position of power here. I’ve read his stuff. It’s rubbish. Any hero called Dirk is a mis-spelling; the i is right next door to the o on a keyboard. But he’s made a lot of money with Dork. So what do I know? I’m not an angry embittered hopeful. I just think his stuff is crap. But at least I read it.

BTW, Clive? Odd name for an action thriller writer. The only Clive I’ve ever known was a specky nerd at school who spent his spare time writing haikus in Latin.

Kirk Ironside. That would be a proper name for the genre. Clint Gruyf.

Printed in a flat tint, no picture, just blind embossed or matt varnished type

Not always bad, but be cautious. Some of Colin Bateman’s books are plain covered, and I like him.

Beekeeping hats

Often a bad sign but not always. I happen to like Joanna Trollope, and there’s often a bit of an apiarist’s feel about the covers, so you could miss out by applying this guidance too rigorously.

A depiction of a rural idyyll

This does not apply in the case of Le Grand Meaune (did I spell that correctly?), but again use a bit of common sense.

Blurbs to avoid

‘His/her sensational new best seller!’

Errm, if it’s new, how can it be a best seller already?


This means depressing.


This means depressing.


This means depressing. Or badly written smut.


Pointless noodlings may be on the menu here.

‘I loved it!’

But they only let me out at weekends. With an escort.


This word is a two edged sword, so you need to be careful. It might simply mean badly written. But some autobiographies by very ordinary yet extraordinary people can be unpretentious and intensely moving.

Other words to be wary of

Times Literary Supplement.

You do not want a good review from them. You don’t. A rave review from them means nobody will understand what the hell is going on or indeed why you the author bothered to put pen to paper. And they’d wish you hadn’t.

Semiotics, paradigms, shifting perceptions, unexplored before, unheard of

Oh really? Be careful here. If those words are used then there’s a good chance you’ll lose the will to live before you get to anything of any interest at all

A lingustic triumph, a cornucopia of redefinition

Utter pretentious nonsense. I love messing about with language, but if I were ever published and had a review that said this, I’d feel stupid, inadequate, and pretentious. I’d take out a contract on the reviewer.

But there is a very honourable exception to this. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. An entire book written in an imagined language, Nadsat, and more than 45 years after I read it the first time it continues to entrance me and haunt me.


Gawdelpus. That’s a word I never want applied to anything I have written or will ever write. I have no problem with clever, but I have a very serious problem with abstruse, which is shorthand for too cleverclever for its own good. In the unlikely event I ever get into print, and somebody applies the word abstruse, you have my full permission to kill me. I’ll load the damned gun for you. Take me out. I’ll deserve it.

At the top of his/her form

Usually means this is the same old stuff rehashed. One exception to this rule is any one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. Sorry, I’m a complete sucker for them. That might mean I’m wrong sometimes. You can’t believe how hard it is for me to admit that.

High octane thrills.

Probably bad, but not always.

Tripe Slitters Weekly.

Not likely to be a foremost arbiter of good taste or literature. For them, Silence of the Lambs was a documentary. Ditto any regional newspapers, any other publication of dubious wordliness. Looks good till you read the small print, then ‘BAM! Who cares if a load of Aussie sheep shearers think you’re good?

Oh my I love this stuff. I can annoy people then ignore them. It’s not like some verbal fisticuffs in a pub. I can more or less say anything, and nobody can get at me, since I can simply ignore the flame mail. And I’m unlikely to generate the level of hatred that would result in a denial of service.

Denial of service? I’d know I’d arrived. Maybe I should aim for that.

11 thoughts on “The perils of buying secondhand books”

  1. Also “”Five stars … News of the World”

  2. This was not only insightful and edfucational, but I laughed until…well I got a Kleenex just in time.>KB

  3. I love this post. Love it. As an English major, I’ve encountered ALL of it and more.

  4. Okay I will stop commenting for awhile because now I feel like I am blog-stalking. 🙂 Simply put….I enjoy this. <—–not pretentious right?

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