There’s no question that reading is important — it educates, inspires, entertains, and so much more. But with thousands of books published every week, how does a reader (especially one that is just getting into reading) decide which one to pick up? This question often occurs for me both because of my work as a librarian and because I am a reader myself! So how does one choose what to read?
Read What You Like
“Never apologize for your reading taste” — Betty Rosenberg
The first rule in Choosing Books Club is to read what you like! This may seem like odd advice to begin with because, well, isn’t it obvious? In fact, no.
Far too many people allow their reading to be guided by the taste of others; they limit themselves to bestseller lists or the latest publishing craze or want only to read the “right” books. How many people’s love of reading has been thwarted by attempts to cram themselves with so-called classics or opaque literary tomes? As if literary fiction or classics (if there is even a proper definition for these terms) are the pinnacle of reading taste. Actually, neither classics nor literary fiction are categories that are helpful in classifying ones reading tastes. To wit, how different are classics like Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton? The three novels were written by American authors within ten years of each other (1927, 1919, 1920, respectively), and yet the qualities that draw readers to them differ wildly!
With so many choices out there, every reader can find a book to match their preferences. Yet, this abundance of opportunity can also be too much of a good thing. How does a willing reader sift through the stacks to find the book that is right for them? Have no fear, there are ways. Read on…
Discovering Your Reading Tastes
Do you enjoy stories that fling you forward at a breakneck pace or do you prefer they let you amble along smelling the flowers? Are you fan of dark humor or slapstick comedy? Do you want a book that gets you all hot and bothered or one that makes you too terrified to remain home alone? Is your favorite story told in ornate, baroque, extravagant poetry, or hard-boiled, staccato, prosaic prose?
All of these questions are directly related to isolating the “appeals” you are drawn to. I mentioned appeals in a previous article when I talked about Readers’ Advisory, a subfield of library science devoted to book recommendation. There, I mentioned Joyce G. Saricks, who in her book Readers Advisory in the Public Library, isolates five facets of appeals:
- Pacing: How quickly does the book move? Is it a page-turner or will it, like War and Peace did for me, take a month to finish?
- Characterization: How are the characters treated by the author? Are they described so deeply that the book could be called a character study? Or are they just archetypal chess pieces in a complicated game?
- Story line: What is the orientation of the plot? Is it character-driven or action-oriented? Very complex? Inspirational? Absurd?
- Frame and Tone: What is the mood of the book? Is it heartwarming? Thrilling? Dark? Philosophical? Quirky?
- Style: How could the author’s writing style be described? Spare? Conversational? Poetic? Intricate?
Thinking about your favorite stories (books, movies, plays, doesn’t matter) through these terms allows you to get a sense of your preferences. It gives you a language to articulate your tastes. Whether you are looking for a novel or narrative non-fiction, you can now begin mapping the sorts of stories you most appreciate on the gamut of options out in the world!
Finding Your Genre
One way of narrowing your reading options is by considering which genres encapsulate your favorite appeals. Most people have a fairly robust understanding of well-known genres. We know, for example, that mysteries tend to be fast-paced and thrilling, they’re often written without adornment, though individual authors sometimes have recognizable styles. Alternately, the fantasy genre is filled with dense characterization, globs of description, and proceeds at a stately pace.
Though there are exceptions (many of which would fit into sub-genres), a genre serves as a sort-of calling card when it comes to appeals. Genre conventions offer an easy way for readers to find their tribe; for me, most science fiction offers the ideal balance of plot (heavy), description (light), characterization (medium), with styles that range from off-kilter/humorous (Connie Willis, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams) to plain weird (Philip Dick, Cory Doctorow esp. with Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, and Theodore Sturgeon w/ More Than Human), to fairly straightforward (most Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, James White). But it’s different for everyone.
Take a look at this list of genres and the appeals you associate with them. Choose one that tickles your fancy and let’s get you moving!
Narrowing Your Options
So you understand your appeals and genre preferences, now you can get down to business: The hundreds, even thousands, of options readily available in each genre! What to do?
Here are some tips that can help:
- Read books by their covers! It’s fine, librarians do it all the time. Go to a bookstore, library, or your favorite online shop and browse. Does a book’s cover art appeal to you? Perfect, now read the inside flap, what do you think of the plot description? If you like it, you’ve found your book!
- Many libraries offer free access to a website called NoveList, a Readers’ Advisory librarian’s secret weapon! NoveList is database of expert recommendations which include lists of “read-alikes” (books that read like other books!) based on all sorts of appeals. My favorite thing about NoveList is their read-alike essays — short, insightful articles written by genre experts explaining an author’s (or a books) appeals and recommending others with similar appeals.
- Another online resource I find useful is Goodreads recommendations. Generally, I find automated recommendations lame (I’m looking at Amazon here), but Goodreads does a surprisingly fine job of serving interesting books based on specific shelves in one’s account. (Yes, I know Amazon owns Goodreads.)
- Though I’ve steered you away from the other’s opinions, now that you’re comfortable with your tastes, go check out popular awards for your genre, book blogs, and websites dedicated to the type of books you like.
- Finally, go ask a librarian! Not all librarians are good at Readers’ Advisory, but there’s usually at least one in every building that relishes talking about books of all sorts. Tell them what you’d like and let them do their job. Hopefully, you’ll end up with a few choices you’ll enjoy!
Reading is a wonderful journey full of enormous variety! Try things out! Once you’ve settled into your reading groove, select something totally different for a change and a challenge. I used to be a “finisher,” I had to finish every book I picked up. But as I’ve aged, I’ve changed. Who has time to waste reading dreadful books? Now, when I pick one up, I’ll read the first 50 or 100 pages (1–2 hours if we’re talking audiobooks) and if I’m not digging it, I move on. Betty Rosenberg’s quote echoes in my mind as I close the book and, unapologetically, select something better suited to my reading tastes. I prefer to enjoy my reading, and you should too!