Monday, July 7, 2014

John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps

I learned an important lesson today, one which I knew generally, but was really driven home:  disregard the average rating for books, whether it's on Goodreads or Amazon or another website with ratings.  John Buchan's novel Thirty-Nine Steps doesn't score very well among those who've read it and rated it on Goodreads--in the 3.5 range out of 5.  Thankfully, I didn't see that rating before I considered reading the novel--I was guided to it by Robert McCrum's ranking of it in The Guardian as one of the best 100 novels (number 42 on his list).    After reading his account of it, I found a free copy and downloaded it.

I should say here that, like many of you, I tend to be a little too spontaneous at times, and my Kindle books list can attest to moments when I had a powerful initial urge to read something, but then didn't read much of it after I bought it.  Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is one of those--I enjoy Pynchon, and finished his longer works (Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, V.), but when I downloaded Against the Day, I was not really in a place to read 1,000 pages of Pynchon writing.  Nevertheless, it seemed pressing at the moment I bought it.  My spontaneity sometimes doesn't align with my commitment to reading something, so I bought the free version of Buchan's novel.  Had I not found one, I would have put it on my "to-read" list, and probably forgotten it for a while.

Boy, I am glad I found the free copy.  I started and finished it this morning.  I've said before that I'm a pretty slow reader, so it is no small feat for me to polish off a 215-page novel in a morning.  I just couldn't put it down.  The story is interesting and the writing is crisp.  There are some interesting twists to the story, but ultimately Buchan makes the narrator, Richard Hannay, a compelling, complex character.  As the story unfolds, you want to know not only what is going to happen next, but also what it will reveal about Hannay.

Buchan also plays with the theme of identity and disguise throughout the novel.  Near the end of the novel, so much of what happens depends on the idea that people can disguise themselves not by making physical changes to themselves, but by placing themselves in new settings.  It also seems to pick up the fundamental premise of Poe's "The Purloined Letter":  that the best place to hide is out in the open, in the middle of things.  Hannay himself is a chameleon who is very aware of the different identities he takes on throughout the novel.  By the end of the novel, it's clear that, to Buchan, seeing is not a reliable way to know someone's identity.

Don't be scared off by the low ratings:  Thirty-Nine Steps is a great read that belongs on McCrum's best 100 novels list.  But don't start it unless you can carve out the time to finishing it in one sitting.


  1. I've been thinking about the informative power of ratings recently. I did an analysis of my own ratings of books and their average rating. There's definitely a correlation between the two but there is a lot of variation. My conclusion is that a bad rating isn't a reason not to read a book, but a good rating may be a reason to make a book a higher priority.

    1. I've also realized that Goodreads ratings, for example, are often ratings within a subgenre that might not make sense as a global rating. So a novel like Sharon Penman's Here Be Dragons has a 4.31 avg rating, but I suspect that results from people who read within that subgenre identifying her as the best in it. But would she really rate a 4.31 by people reading her, and within the subgenre, for the first time?