"The privilege of browsing is, however, still allowed, if less comfortably than it used to be. This relates to the unique feature of the bookshop: you can sample before you buy (or not). A large proportion of walk-in customers do not know what they want precisely, and will have bought nothing when they leave. They will, none the less, have fingered and sampled the produce, and taken their time doing it. A bite here, a bite there. Despite a growing pressure to make bookshops more like In-N-Out Burger, it is still possible to browse. Dust jackets, blurbs, shoutlines, critics' commendations ("quote whores", as they are called in the video/DVD business) all jostle for the browser's attention. But I recommend ignoring the hucksters' shouts and applying instead the McLuhan test.
Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works. Rule One, then: browse powerfully and read page 69. If maps are useful, so are charts. Bestseller lists weed down the mass of available novels to the 20 or so that everybody is reading - but almost certainly will not be reading in a few months' time. The trick is not to get into the game late, but to pick the rising titles near the bottom, or to check out what is on the list of the other major English-speaking country before they arrive on your shores.
This is an edited extract from John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide, published this week by Profile"