How to Go About Finding Books I'd Enjoy? (Unhappy With Salesperson's Recommendations)
February 27, 2004 9:51 AM   Subscribe

How did you find your favourite book? I occasionally get the urge to buy a book when walking by a bookstore, however, having only a vague idea of what I want to read, I usually go home with a recommendation from the salesperson that is so off-base that I ditch the book after reading the first few chapters.

Of course, this cycle gets progressively worse and it is now to the point where I go into the bookstore, glancing at titles and skimming back covers, wanting badly to find a book that will spark my interest only to eventually leave empty-handed and more even more discouraged.
posted by KathyK to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My best book references come from a friend, and from some good book store employees. My friend knows and shares my taste, and with the book store employees, I would just explain some of the books I liked and they would recommend stuff. Unfortunately, many book store employees (especially at large chains) are kind of like the employees at most big chains - they stand around looking like they're supposed to be helpful, but they don't seem to know anything.

The best book I got from book store employees were Ruth Ozeki's book, My Year of Meats, and all the works of Haruki Murakami.

At one time I thought that Amazon recommendations or the "Other people who bought this book also bought..." function would turn me on to new books, but they've been pretty disappointing.

What *are* your favorite books? Maybe we all can make some suggestions.
posted by jasper411 at 10:09 AM on February 27, 2004

Definately recommendations from friends are good. Also, I've been going through various 'classical' books, figuring that if they're a classic, it may be because they're really good. Some are really good, amazingly enough.
posted by stoneegg21 at 10:21 AM on February 27, 2004

My favourite book? I read book A by an author because it had gotten some publicity, decided I liked it, asked my relatives to get me other books by that author, and they gave me book B by that author. Book B, I would have to say, is my "desert-island" book. (For the record: Book A = "The Satanic Verses", book B = "Midnight's Children", both by Salman Rushdie.)

And before everyone starts jumping in with their favourite books, I'll note that we had a similar discussion not too long ago.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:22 AM on February 27, 2004

I'll often go to Barnes and Noble or Borders and sit down in one of their comfy chairs with a book that looks interesting or that I've heard something about. Reading the first few pages is usually enough to get a really good idea. Most of my favorite books were books I'd vaguely heard of and then much later picked up off the shelf at the bookstore or library and started reading. This method is how I found Infinite Jest and Norwegian Wood. Otherwise, it's recommendations from friends, family, reviews, or Amazon.

One thing which I've tried to do is get novels of my favorite short story authors. Unfortunately, with the exception of David Foster Wallace whose stories I discovered afterwards anyway, most of them seem to excel only in one format. (On preview, maybe good novels predict good short stories more than vice versa. I'll have to check into Murakami's stories.)
posted by callmejay at 10:32 AM on February 27, 2004

I'm fond of the NYTIMES Book Review, which comes out every Sunday. You can also read it online, at (registration required).

In addition to in-depth reviews, they also post several best-sellers lists. So you can see both literary and popular tastes side-by-side.

They have regular columns on certain genres, like Sci-fi and mystery.

See also The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Suppliment.
posted by grumblebee at 10:47 AM on February 27, 2004

There are also good book blogs, like Bookslut (mostly SFW), which often point me to books I wouldn't have known about.
posted by callmejay at 11:02 AM on February 27, 2004

Even though my girlfriend loves books and works at B&N, I find the most accurate predictor of what I'll like, based on my previous choices, is Amazon. I usually don't buy them there, but I can get a pretty good list of references to start from.
posted by pomegranate at 11:04 AM on February 27, 2004

Surprisingly, I've had very good luck judging books by their covers.
posted by bondcliff at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2004

The one book list might be useful.
posted by frenetic at 11:14 AM on February 27, 2004

The best books I've read have be recommended to me by people whose tastes I trust, be they friends, a bookstore owner I like, the imaginary folks on USENET, or a good reviewer. Find a good independent bookstore and chat up the owner. I also AOL the NYT review of books. I carry around a little black book, in which I am constantly noting "books to look for".
posted by bonehead at 11:21 AM on February 27, 2004

I use 3 basic sources of recommendations:

1. Friends. Most of my friends have truly god-awful taste in books. But some of them are quite close to me, so if they've read something, and recommend it, I'll usually like it.
2. Amazon's recommendations. They do have an annoying tendancy to simply recommend other books by the same author (like, duh, I've told you I loved these 8 books by Ian Rankin, do you really need to recommend the other 3? Presumably I already realize I'm going to like them). But they also sometimes come up with an interesting change.
3. Michael Dirda's WashPost LiveOnline book chat. Wednesdays, usually, at 2pm. Throw out any book related question and the great Dirda will have an answer, a recommendation or an amusing anecdote to share.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:00 PM on February 27, 2004

I tend to browse two place in my local library: the new book shelf and the section where I got my last book. The new book shelf has books on current events and sometimes new books by authors I've heard of. The non-fiction section is just a starting point. I'll start in one section and get sort of attracted by a shiny book in another section and wander over.

I sort of prefer this than the bookstore route because 1) I don't have money for new books, period. 2) in a bookstore every book is designed to be shiny, in libraries it's much more happenstance. I do read a lot of blogs that are by librarians and/or about books [props to Bookslut] and sometimes authors send me books they think I'll like [Lev Grossman's Codex was a good read, coming soon to a bookstore near you]. If a friend mails or hands me a book I will always give it 50 or so pages, and some friends are just known for being great recommenders. I encourage them to get online booklists, here's mine.
posted by jessamyn at 12:20 PM on February 27, 2004

Honestly? My favorite book is Godel, Escher, Bach..and I'm not saying that to impress you guys. I heard about it from a blurb in a men's clothing catalog - describing a beautiful woman who's reading it (thus proving she's smart, too). As it turns out, the author of GEB took over the Scientific American column from one of my favorite writers as a kid, Martin Gardner. I know this isn't particularly helpful, but the point is: any time you hear about *any* book, write it down, and, as was mentioned above, just read the first couple pages to see if you like it.
posted by notsnot at 12:59 PM on February 27, 2004

Some of what mookieproof lists above. That'll put the book in my head then when I get to the bookstore and then I'll actually page through the book and quickly get a sense of whether I really want to read it.

Also, The New Yorker's weekly "Briefly Noted" section is good. I also like to use Amazon, not their recommendations but browsing through the ListMania lists, hopping from one to the other based on lists that seem centered on what I happen to be looking for at the time.
posted by vacapinta at 1:29 PM on February 27, 2004

As a horror reader, I have had very good luck with the Bram Stoker Award nominees, except for Wither which was putrid. Annual genre award lists have served me well in other categories also. By these, I mean the minor awards, the B-list as it were; nominees for the big awards just turn me off for the most part .

Another excellent source is to find out who your favorite authors are reading. Also, Writers Digest often recommends excellent books, and the book reviews in small literary magazines can be good also. One source I don't like are the 'large' reviewers, like New York Times and such; they just seem to pander to a type of reader with whom I cannot identify. (See previous paragraph)

Occasionally, I will get a good candidate from Amazon's "Other Readers Bought" and other Amazon site features. This is particularly good for those authors you know but never got around to reading something by them. For instance, I hadn't read anything by Ray Bradbury since the early 70s, so I picked up his latest and it turned out to be an excellent read.

Finally, nothing beats cherry-picking 6 to 8 books off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, buying a large, extra rich coffee special du jour, and settling into a comfy chair and reading the first 20 pages of each.
posted by mischief at 3:18 PM on February 27, 2004

I've found the Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors to be quite useful, actually...for each author it profiles, it's got good listings pointing you to other authors with similar styles or approaches. I started off with David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Lethem, and some other authors I like, and it led me to Steven Millhauser, Geoff Nicholson, and others that I doubt I'd have discovered on my own.
posted by Vidiot at 9:30 PM on February 27, 2004

When I was 12, a book titled "The Rolling Stones" caught my eye. At the time, I was unaware of a band by that name. But the title seemed cool.

Turned out to be my 1st Robert A. Heinlein novel, and my first science fiction novel. Since then its been a matter of book clubs and friend's recommendations, and just browsing.

Biggest discovery outside Sci-fi: Morris West's novels, from a friend. A very curious body of work.
posted by Goofyy at 3:25 AM on February 28, 2004

I have a notebook, which whenever I hear about an interesting book, movie, song, etc. I write it down in my notebook, then when I do have money to spend, I try to find books on my list.

As for the put down of chainstore employees... Maybe you're talking to the wrong ones. The hardest part of giving recommendations is that people will rarely give you enough information about what they do like. For example, I like some science-fiction, but I hate series sci-fi and military stuff. Most shoppers (especially when looking for gifts) will just give a broad category name and expect a bookseller to make a pointed recommendation based on that.
posted by drezdn at 7:22 AM on February 28, 2004

Lately my practice has been to purchase random volumes from The Library of America. They look pricey, but considering that each volume usually has three or four novels in it, they're almost always a good deal.

Any single-author poetry collection that's big, fat, and career-summing (James Merrill, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, e.g.) is also a safe bet.
posted by Prospero at 7:28 AM on February 28, 2004 - reg. req'd - has a dedicated membership that includes writers and readers of varying tastes. I use my Library a lot, and Amazon's recommendations are interesting up to a point. Bookfilter is nifty, and would be more so if y'all would go join up and post. It needs a nudge or 3 to develop critical mass.
posted by theora55 at 8:20 AM on February 28, 2004

Friends, NYT book review, and very much the covers--if a cover catches my eye (designwise), there's usually a reason.
posted by amberglow at 9:19 AM on February 28, 2004

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