Toooo maaany booooks
January 9, 2013 8:01 AM   Subscribe

How do you decide what books to read? Recommendations? Reviews? Go to the bookstore and read a chapter? I often find myself overwhelmed with the zillions of choices. How do you narrow it down?
posted by SampleSize to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Every week, the New Yorker has a section called "Books Briefly Noted," which is three or four capsule reviews of books that have just come out. I've found more than a few great books through there, including David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, which remains one of my favorite books of all time.
posted by griphus at 8:05 AM on January 9, 2013

I often place books in my Amazon wishlist and let them sit there for a long time (months to years). Then, every so often I'll go back through it and cross off the ones that no longer hold me interested.

After this, or even before, you can usually read the table of contents and a few pages of the book on Amazon and confirm that it is appropriate to what you want.
posted by SollosQ at 8:09 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I browse lists and reviews off goodreads
posted by motdiem2 at 8:11 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I use a combination of an Amazon wishlist and goodreads to keep track of books I've heard about and thought seemed interesting (online, on the radio, through friends). Then I go back and look. I use the bookstore or kindle to check out a chapter if the book is a totally unknown quantity. I also tend to ask friends who I know have similar tastes - either through facebook or goodreads.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:12 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

You kind of just have to come to terms with the fact that you will never get to read all the good things. I read about 150 books a year and am 36 years old; that means realistically I have, at most, about 7000 more books in me before I die. So what I do is just try to keep a steady stream of a wide range of things I enjoy, and if I don't like something, I quit after fifty pages and move on.

As far as where I get ideas: Amazon's best of the month, Publisher's Weekly reviews, goodreads, metafilter, various Top 10 of the Year lists, Entertainment Weekly, friends, library features, etc. Over the years I've been able to develop a pretty extensive list of active authors I know I'll enjoy, and their new stuff, plus things that are recommended to be as "being like _____'s work" keep me pretty occupied.
posted by something something at 8:14 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

i use goodreads & the library. goodreads to keep track of things i might want to read someday, the library to request 10 books at a time, take them home, and then read whichever one grabs me. when you get books from the library there is no obligation to read them because you spent zero dollars, so it's not a big deal to take home something i end up not wanting to read.
posted by katieanne at 8:15 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you are a responsible person who can take care of other people's property, you can basically consider your friends' bookshelves a well-curated lending library.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

All of the above! Where possible, find reviewers who share your tastes. There are some great review magazines out there -- libraries are particularly likely to carry them, as well as some pretty neat subscription databases that also have reviews and other info. Ask at your local library what sorts of things they offer to help you find books to read.

And yeah, you can't worry too much about never getting to read All The Things. Concentrate more on finding the right book for your current mood, and building up a list of books you'd like to get to when you get a chance.
posted by asperity at 8:18 AM on January 9, 2013

I use Metafilter, the recommendations of authors I like, and various reading lists around the Internet, particularly here. I use Goodreads to organize them all.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:19 AM on January 9, 2013

I mostly use goodreads to keep track of books I discover through friends (online and IRL), reviews, tv/radio mentions, podcasts (interviews with authors can give you a real sense of whether you're going to like the book) twitter, noticing in a bookstore, etc. I'm trying to get better about tagging my "to be read" books so that I can quickly find a book when I'm in the mood for something specific (short, long, fiction, nonfiction, light, deep, etc.).

For some genres (genre fiction, especially), I rely a lot on friends' reviews and recommendations. I like trashy Regency romances and cozy mysteries, but I'm picky about them. Looking at my goodreads friends' reviews is more useful to me than editorial or random Amazon/goodreads reviews for these types of reads.

For other genres (literary fiction, pop science/economics/history), I find editorial reviews and stranger reviews very useful.
posted by mskyle at 8:20 AM on January 9, 2013

Best answer: Step 1 -- Grab a book. Any book. The first thing you see, or a book your co-worker is reading (okay, grab another copy of this one), or a book you heard about on NPR last week.

Step 2 -- Read the first 50 pages. Put it down. The next day, do you want to read that book?

If No, then go back to Step 1.

If Yes, then read it. Keep reading it until you're done. Did you love it ("OMG I must read everything this author has ever written!")?

If Yes, then get the next book the author has written. Go to Step 2.

If No, did you like it? ("Yeah, this was pretty good.")?

If Yes, then find a similar book in the same genre (mystery, sci-fi, coming-of-age stories). Your bookstore can help, or Amazon has "Customers bought similar..." notes.

If No, then go back to Step 1.

The more times you go through this, the more defined your own tastes will be, and you'll be better equipped to find the next book for yourself.

Or, if you're just looking for a recommendation, pick from The Great Gatsby, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Catcher in the Rye, Bonfire of the Vanities or World War Z. Those are -- in my opinion -- the five best books written in the English language of their respective quarter-centuries (so far, in WWZ's case).
posted by Etrigan at 8:24 AM on January 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

Nthing Good Reads. I use it frequently. I also use Amazon's "people who read this also read..." lists. I'll peruse the lists for books that I have really liked, and sort through the list by description that sounds interesting to me and reviews.
posted by Quincy at 8:29 AM on January 9, 2013

I have come to terms with the fact that I will never read all the things.

I'm better about just putting down books that I don't like or that have failed to hold my interest.

I follow paths of interest - earlier this month, I was reading a book about explorers in the Amazon, and now that's got me onto a book about pre-contact Americas, and I've got a book on my wishlist about the history of Canada being settled by Europeans, since it was quite a different process from the U.S. one.
posted by rtha at 8:30 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

A writer I really enjoy, John Jeremiah Sullivan, talked in an interview about this and it stuck with me:

"Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good."
posted by saltwater at 8:32 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I basically add books I hear about (on Metafilter, mostly - but also other blogs and twitter and recommendations from friends) to my GoodReads account - and when it comes time to choose a new book, I go through that "to-read" list and grab what I think I'm in the mood for. Usually something rises to the surface.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:32 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Whenever I see a review or recommendation for something I might want to read, I reserve the book at my library. This makes for a steady stream of book arrivals. I pick them up a couple of times a week and choose my reading from that set.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:33 AM on January 9, 2013

I read enough book blogs and readers' blogs so that a lot of stuff pings my attention. Sometimes it pings my attention so dramatically that I investigate it right away. Sometimes it takes a couple of pings, or I see it in a bookstore and remember that someone somewhere had recommended it.

Then I read the first page.

If I read the first page, and something in me says "Yes, this is my book, please come home with me now," then that settles it. Most of the adult books I read are the books that do that to me or books that are by an author I already know and like.

(I read a ton of YA based on others' recommendations and starred reviews in trade journals too, but that's professional reading -- I often enjoy it, but there's a sense of obligation attached too.)
posted by Jeanne at 8:41 AM on January 9, 2013

When I find a book I like I read the writer's other books. (I'm currently reading books by Scottish writer Denise Mina, she's great!)

I often read several books a week, sometimes have two or three going at a time.

Many years ago I realized that I, a woman, had mostly read books by men, so I started making a concerted effort to read more books by women.

I'm a librarian, but our college library doesn't have much current fiction, so I use my local public library.

If I don't like any of the characters introduced in the first ten pages I generally stop reading the book, unless it has some other appeal, like amazing language.

When I'm browsing for books in the library I sometimes open them to a random page, read a few a lines, and either put the book back or take it home depending on how I like the random paragraph or two I've read.
posted by mareli at 8:42 AM on January 9, 2013

Sample more. Amazon's Look Inside is the best thing ever.

As a corollary, fail faster. Allow yourself the freedom to quit reading a particular book sooner.

By all means track your results on Goodreads and compare your thoughts with those of others. The user reviews there are often great.

But in my case the scores only weakly correlate with my own ratings (I ran the numbers), and sequels and some genres enjoy demonstrable and significant boosts to their scores there. So take the numeric scores with a grain of salt.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:46 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reviews and recommendations, sure. I maintain a list of titles which sounded interesting, and distribute it when people request a gift list.

Plus I have a box full of To-Be-Read books.

But usually I'm reading something unexpected, from neither of the above sources, something discovered serendipitously at the bookstore or library or who-knows-were.

My advice, to younger readers especially, don't waste your time with fluff, you don't need to read every book in that series, or by that author. And if it's a book that's so popular, everybody's reading it, I'd rather not.
posted by Rash at 8:53 AM on January 9, 2013

And I give a book the first ten or so pages -- if it doesn't interest by then, on to the next, life's too short.
posted by Rash at 9:02 AM on January 9, 2013

You probably have to read more to find out what turns you on or off. And that may change over time. The funnel will narrow in some ways and widen in others as you read more. Years ago, I could read mass market fiction by the truckload; now I have a limited tolerance for it, but if someone recommends it to me directly or if a blogger I follow says they loved it, I'll check it out and I'm generally not disappointed.

A tried and true method of separating the wheat from (my) chaff: when I'm at a library or bookstore, I'll typically see if the cover and title draw me, then I'll scan the synopsis and the blurbage. If I'm still interested, I'll try reading a page. (Amazon also lets you do this.) It is amazing how many potentially depressing/demoralizing yet well-reviewed or fashionable books do NOT pass this test, which means that I have probably spared myself a waste of my time. (Note that I said MY time. Someone else might like the book.)

Be prepared to walk away if you're not all that chuffed about the book within about 50-100 pages. There will either be a little something that will keep you going with the book, no matter how difficult it is, or there won't be. Heed that voice. Don't waste your time or worse, pollute your mind with garbage. I bought a book a few years back on a bookstore employee's recommendation when I was coming down with the flu. I believe it passed the page test. I was stuck in the house and bored, so I kept reading long past the time when the warning klaxons were going off in my head. If I could unread the half of that book that I read, I would do so.

And I am eternally grateful that there are So. Many. Books, and that so many of them please me. Wish I could say the same about TV shows, but I can't.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:08 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I start a lot of them and then I finish the ones I feel like finishing. Ones that fail to compel me, I put down.
posted by NoraReed at 9:11 AM on January 9, 2013

First, narrow down your general categories. Fiction or non-fiction? Native language or translated works? Genre? Length? Time period?

Right now, I'm interested in fiction. In particular, I want to read some classic American and English authors, primarily American.

I don't want epics and I want something at least 20th century or later. I want an author who has been recognized by critics so I check Pulitzer lists and National Book Award lists.

That still leaves a lot to choose from. I write down some authors and go to the library or used book store. I might use Amazon to narrow down choices among novels by different authors by reading the reviews, both good and bad.

I read blurbs and bits from the book itself. I see if the opening catches me. I agree with Rash that 10 pages out to do it.

I just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and am now reading As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner by using this method.
posted by perhapses at 9:15 AM on January 9, 2013

When I see something interesting I send a sample to my Kindle. Samples are free and you can send as many as you want. Typically they are a chapter or two. If the sample is good I buy the book.
posted by massysett at 9:27 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I go to the bookstore and browse the tables with the new books and note titles that look good, then check reviews (usually on Publishers Weekly) to see if it sounds like they are all right or a terrible idea.
posted by mlle valentine at 9:28 AM on January 9, 2013

I read through a particular author's work, I read through a particular publisher's list, I seek recommendations for specific types of books from specific places, I read reviews. These are all important ways to choose books, and many of them will not work to find specific kinds of books, so I actually find this kind of a tough question to answer without knowing what it is (generally) what you like to read.

For instance, you aren't going to learn about L.P. Harltey's great books from a review, because they were written many years ago. You also aren't going to learn about World War Z by reading through a particular publisher's list because it was published by Crown, which is mostly a crap publisher with a huge list of schlock. Discovering, and choosing to read, those kinds of books require different strategies.
posted by OmieWise at 9:41 AM on January 9, 2013

Goodreads. That’s what I use it for, not really anything else. I see what other people are reading that looks good.

On the other subject, I nearly always finish anything I start. I’ve changed my mind so many times about books I didn’t like at first.
posted by bongo_x at 9:53 AM on January 9, 2013

I actually get all my book recommendations from here!! I go on goodreads too, but looking at the threads on askmefi is actually how I found this place. You are asking us where we get our book recs, by extension I am assuming that you have some degree of faith in the type of books we actually choose. To start with, go here, or here, or here or here or here or here! And just pick one (don't read reviews) and go! It's more fun to be surprised and to read the reviews afterwards. Also maybe check out flavorwire...
posted by dinosaurprincess at 10:02 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a great relationship with two different booksellers at two different bookstores who greatly influence what books I end up reading.

Mefi's Own Bibliogrrl gives me recommendations based on taste. I have told her "I'm like to reading working class, preferably queer memoir/fiction by women, like Michelle Tea or Eileen Myles" and she tells me to buy Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. She keeps an eye out for things she thinks I would like.

I also maintain a list of books I would like to read. Everytime I walk into a bookstore, the only authors I can remember are the ones who I've read everything they've ever written, so I have a text doc synced between every device I use where I copy-paste book titles from articles and AskMe questions and everywhere else I see interesting books mentioned. Every once in a while I email the list to a local bookseller who keeps an eye out for the books I want coming in.

posted by Juliet Banana at 10:06 AM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

John Scalzi (mefi's own!) has a series of guest pieces on his blog called the Big Idea where authors come in to talk about the big idea behind their work. That has led me to a number of fantastic authors whose back catalogs I then devour.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:11 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I feel like reading a certain kind of book, and I'll just google the question itself (like "disabled hero" or "down-to-earth fantasy") -- and this has serendipitously led me to some very good lists on goodreads and elsewhere. I was googling "books like [my favorite author]" and found a whole blog post talking about options. I've recently been looking for more GLBT speculative fiction, and I found some good lists with reviews.

This does assume that you have a feeling of what you might like to find, a hook to begin with.
posted by jb at 10:34 AM on January 9, 2013

I keep a list on my phone so when I hear about a book from any source that sounds interesting, I actually note it down and take it to the library. Then, at the library, I tend to grab random interesting stuff off the New Fiction shelf and sometimes I just wander the stacks and snatch things. I read a lot.

Seconding Scalzi's Big Idea series (particularly if you're into SF.) I also follow authors I like on Twitter, and they are always recommending or mentioning (or chatting with) authors they like. I have found a whole social circle of authors that way who are all kind of awesome.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:42 AM on January 9, 2013

Ooh, and I forgot (also SF-specific) The Squeecast. A handful of authors and editors who bring something they're really excited about - new or old - and talk about it in detail every month. Totally delightful.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:43 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I no longer work in a bookstore or have a big book budget but I am lucky because my local Goodwills are fantastic for good fiction. Also in the past year or two most of my book-reading neighbors must have moved away because the yard sales have yielded some really good stuff. So most of the books on my shelves are books I haven't read yet which is a treat when I am looking for something new to read. This works for me because I don't feel the need to read the latest or newest or what's trending and I happily dig into the backlist.
posted by headnsouth at 10:52 AM on January 9, 2013

Depends on what kind of book shopping I am doing.

If it's in a bookstore, I flip through the beginning of the book to see if I care what's going on with it, does it intrigue me enough to pay $27 right now, etc. Sometimes I am hooked immediately. If not, it's much more dubious and I have to think about it harder and how much money I have on me right now.

Online is pretty similar, I do the "look now" on Amazon and read what I can see and read reviews and take a guess as to whether or not I want it.

If it's at the library used book sale, I pretty much grab whatever looks good, because you're fighting other people for the books and don't have much time to flip through. I am more likely to get the "maybe" books there than I am in the store paying full price.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:57 AM on January 9, 2013

Another column of the NYT book section has helped me in the past.
Paperback Row is done by Ihsan Taylor (google search for Paperback Row gives you lots).

I like these lists because since the book is coming out in paperback, it is cheaper and also likely already available in your library. The books are described briefly and you can choose whatever seems likely to appeal to you. It doesn't suffer from the issues that the NYT book section does: painful nepotism keeps them to a small number of authors and also results in books being over praised that just don't deserve it.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:59 PM on January 9, 2013

I use Goodreads for this, but I wanted to offer an additional tip: if you read a book you like, see if the author is active on Goodreads and follow them! If they're actively reading and posting reviews of what they've read, you'll discover a lot of books that way. Plus, because I liked their writing, I'm more likely to trust their taste in books.
posted by meggan at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

When browsing bookstores and something catches my eye, I flip to the page that corresponds with my age and read it. If I like it, I'll probably buy it. This always seems to work for me, but ymmv.

I also rely heavily on recommendations from my mom and friends, but still do the trick above when I can with their recommendations.
posted by k8lin at 3:07 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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