The Page 99 Test

I came across this article in the Guardian UK recently about what is apparently a well-known test devised by Ford Madox Ford to help readers determine if a book they're interested in is worthwhile. FMF (his friends called him "Fordy," I bet) wrote that if a reader were to "open [a] book to page 99 and read. . . the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

While it seems to me that this is a sort of a rule of thumb that has more exceptions than applications, I wondered: how do we determine what's worth reading, especially when we're inundated with so many books? Covers sometimes do the trick, I think, as do recommendations from friends, critics, and booksellers (I hope). But how do you, a browser with nothing particular in mind but a desire to read something new, decide? Do you have an idiosyncratic method? Do you smell a book, judge its heft or flop (which I define as a book's ability to stay open in one hand or on a flat surface), sample paragraphs or sentences throughout, look at an author photo?

Maybe this test is more practical after all.

That's what the founders of the soon-to-be launched Page99Test site hope, at least. The site offers unpublished authors (and, one suspects, curious published writers as well) a chance to upload their page 99s and lets users rate whether they'd be willing to continue reading based on the contents of that page.

Out of curiosity, I scanned a handful of page 99s from recently released books. Judge for yourself:

. . . she thinks, now she has to get home, and has to make sure there's a lot of wood in the stove, she thinks and she walks up the little road and she stops and she turns around, because didn't she hear something behind her? footsteps? she heard something, she thinks. . .
. . . Haley Joel Osment went in the bathroom and removed his clothes and stood naked in the bathtub in sunlight. "I just need to feel good all the time," he thought. "When I'm happy everything seems okay. I feel happy when I'm happy. I don't know. I'll just keep going."
Tao Lin, Richard Yates
. . . The old woman clumped from the room to adjust her teeth in the pantry, and when she returned the dining-room was empty. She stood there for a moment gazing at the remains of the tea on the table and the hastily-pushed-back chairs. Her jaw started to tremble . . .
Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Barry and I and Fred and Ivan and A.J. Sims sat in the kitchen nook at the little table and took shots of the whiskey. It was strong and burned, and I felt powerful at that little table. When people would wander through the kitchen we'd get smart with them because the whiskey was working on us.
James Franco, "The Rainbow Goblins," from Palo Alto