Last week’s meme reminded me of a website that spun out of a tool some readers use in deciding whether to buy or read a book: The Page 99 Test, which is pretty much what its name suggests. The idea is that, rather than read the back blurb (which can be helpful but is often vague and doesn’t tell you anything about writing style) or the first page (which can sometimes be misleading since some books take a little while to get going), you read page 99.
Why 99? Well, I guess "The Page 99 Test" sounded catchier than "The Page 100 Test" or "The Page 82 Test". But beyond that, the folks who set up the site argue that page 99 is far enough in for the plot to have started moving (and the author to have hit their stride) but not so far in as to give away anything terribly spoilery yet. It’ll supposedly give you a fairly reasonable idea of what to expect from the book, as far as the reading experience.
The website itself is set up to allow authors, both aspiring and published, to submit their page 99; then site visitors can read the uploaded pages and vote yay or nay as to whether they’d want to read more of the book. Site visitors don’t get to know who wrote it, or the status of the manuscript, so you don’t know if you’re voting on a published work or not. Once you’ve voted you’re shown how others have voted, and also given the title, author and manuscript status. You do have to log in to be able to participate, but it’s quick.
Out of curiosity, I thought I’d go to some titles from my bookshelf, books I remember really enjoying, and see how they held up to the page 99 test. I chose all fiction for this, and I don’t actually own a lot of fiction, so my options were limited. But here’s a few:
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling – Page 99 is pretty much a summary of how Harry’s early days at the school go, introducing you to the different types of classes and the teachers and such. The content itself is somewhat interesting, but it’s the style of the writing that really catches you up. (And it’s been a while since I’ve read the books, so I’d kind of forgotten what the writing was like.) I’d’ve picked up the book from that page.
- Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden – This was a good actiony one, where the narrator/protagonist has snuck off to visit her sister and make plans to run away, then comes home to discover her absence might have been noticed. Aside from a couple of the Japanese names that my Western mind doesn’t want to wrap itself around, I’d definitely be interested enough to pick this up.
- Little Brother, Cory Doctorow – The couple of his books I’ve read tend to rely on a lot of technical stuff for plot elements, and because most people don’t know the technical stuff, he has to explain it. Page 99 was an explanation of how messages in WWII were encrypted, and how the encryption was broken. Interesting, but not that engaging (though it was fairly engaging for the nature of the content). I might have read page 100 to see if it picked up, but I wouldn’t’ve read the book up just based on that page.
- Going Postal, Terry Pratchett – Okay, really all I should have to say here is that this is Terry Pratchett. Every page is going to be good. But page 99 happens to be a scene with Lord Vetinari, who is probably my favourite of all Pratchett’s characters for his sarcastic wit. So, yes. Would pick this book up, without hesitation.
- Merlin of the Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart – I read this so long ago I can’t even remember the plot, now. It might have been in grade 9, when I was 14. But I remember enjoying it so much I read the whole trilogy quickly. I was really into high fantasy then; I’m not as much now. Reading it, it reads like a high fantasy. Page 99 seems to be an argument between a man and a woman, the man being threatening and the woman snapping back at him. I’m not sure what was going on… but wasn’t really engaged enough to care to know, either.
So, what do I take away from this? That, like anything, the page 99 test can be useful but is probably best used in combination with other things such as the back cover blurb and online reviews. I think the most useful thing about it is that you can get a good sense of the style and flow of the writing from it. Sometimes just the writing is enough to put me off a book.