How to hunt out great books and good authors?
April 15, 2007 6:38 PM   Subscribe

As I get older (and possibly more cantankerous) I'm becoming less willing to spend good money on potentially bad books (well, maybe not bad per se, but books I don't enjoy). Once upon a time, in the increasingly dim past, I used to purchase many books on the assumption that some would prove worth reading. Now, books are becoming increasingly expensive in Australia, and I'm consequently becoming more and more demanding that the book be worth reading before I part with my cash.

So, I'm wondering if any of the Mefites have hit upon an almost-surefire-method for picking the next book you intend to read? I've tried various methods - I've waded through multiple 'The 100 Best Books Ever Written' lists, and if I ever see another copy of Ulysses I will almost certainly scream. I've tried reading through books that have won awards, and while Proulx may be a literary genius, her writing (and the writing of others who have won important literary awards) leaves me cold. And I've also tried buying books from bestseller lists, but that just makes me want to assault Dan Brown, damn his eyes.

I have reasonably wide reading interests, and I'd cite favourite authors as being Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, John Steinbeck, Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, John Connolly, Peter Straub, Jasper Fforde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Douglas Adams and others. My three favourite books? Why, they would be Catch 22, To Kill A Mockingbird and East Of Eden (probably followed closely by something by Terry Pratchett). I enjoy fantasy, satire, serious literature, science fiction, crime, conspiracy, supernatural thrillers. I like long stories and short. Most of all, I like a well-written tale through which I am not forced to be conscious of the writer (my main criticism of authors like Dan Brown - does every chapter have to end with a cliff hanger, you overly-popular-hack?).

I have this nagging suspicion that if I knew better how to use sites like Amazon or Barnes And Noble, my strike-rate for worthwhile vs oh-my-god-I-don't-believe-I-paid-good-money-for-this-trash books (I'm looking at you again, Mr Brown) would be at a much more satisfying level. For example, in the trash category for me would be authors like Dan Brown (no surprises), JK Rowling (sorry, I wouldn't have read this series even as a child), L Ron Hubbard (don't get me started), Piers Anthony (formula writing for formula readers) and others. This is not to upset anyone who enjoys these authors, just to give some insight into my prejudices.

So, does anyone have any advice they can share? Please? Before I go out of my tiny mind while yearning for a great read? Thank you in advance!

(Note: a public library isn't currently all that handy, and even if one was, I'd still appreciate advice on how others go about preselecting potentially good books and authors)
posted by planetthoughtful to Shopping (41 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Well the obvious answer is look to for "recommended" books based on what you've purchased and/or browsed through on their site. I don't really use this tool so I'm not sure how accurate it is, or how much of it is marketing and how much of it is actually trying to suggest good books for YOU, but lots of people I know use it with great success.

The reality is there are a lot more crappy books out there than good ones. You're lucky to read one book out of five, in my opinion, that you REALLY enjoy. I suppose another tack would be find a friend, family member, MeFite, anything, who likes the same books you have, and read some ones they have read and you haven't, and vice versa.

Also, not to be snarky, but you read L Ron Hubbard expecting Capote and Steinbeck?
posted by jckll at 6:47 PM on April 15, 2007

NYT Sunday book review
although the public library is better. do you really not have access?
posted by caddis at 6:48 PM on April 15, 2007

I read the first 50 or so pages in the library. If I like it, I take it out of the library. After reading the book, if I'm really het up about it and am likely to read it again, I buy the book.
posted by klangklangston at 6:50 PM on April 15, 2007

I have the same problem. Check out an author's website. Sometimes they'll have one or two chapters available as a preview. That's better than a review and you know immediately if you're likely to enjoy the book or not.

Have you considered ebooks? Sometimes cheaper than the hardcopy.
posted by who squared at 6:51 PM on April 15, 2007

You're not going to hit on any fool-proof method. Unless you go to bookstore, sit your ass down, and read a few chapters.

But here's an alternative everyone should use:

Used Bookstores.

You can get a lot of books for less than half the cover price. And your less apt to hate yourself if you put a book down and never pick it up again. Because you only spent a buck or two.
posted by ryecatcher at 6:53 PM on April 15, 2007

Are there any local book fairs nearby where you can pick up bags of books for cents on the dollar? That's how I get most of the books I actually buy—and that way I can take a chance on books by authors I've heard good things about but wouldn't buy at full price.

A good way to use Amazon is to do a search for a book you like, then check out the sidebar for that book to see user-created lists that include it. That's how I found most of the graphic novels I read when I first got into the genre, apart from taking the suggestions of my then-boyfriend (an art major and comics aficionado).

Another way I've found new authors/books is by reading the jacket copy of books I like and seeing what authors/books critics compare the author/book/book's themes to—that'll give you a nice constellation of books to check out that are similar in theme/scope/style/or perhaps pleasingly unexpected ways to the original book you liked.
posted by limeonaire at 6:55 PM on April 15, 2007

for finding new books:

for getting books on the cheap (i.e. the cost of postage):

Bookmooch is one of my favorite things ever, and I know that there are a good number of Aussie members.
posted by kimdog at 7:00 PM on April 15, 2007

A great bookstore in a college town is your best bet, but I guess that's not an option? You could try entering the books you've liked on LibraryThing and see what people who like what you like are reading. I've found lots of fake reviews on Amazon-positive and negative, and too much praise for mediocre books, and too much crap to weed through in Barnes & Noble stores.
posted by tula at 7:03 PM on April 15, 2007

You can look for recommendations from authors you already like--sometimes in introductions or interviews they'll mention books or authors they liked. Good authors often have good taste. This can take a little bit of work.

You can look for collections of short stories that have ones by authors you like (even if you've already read that particular story, it can be an indication of the overall quality of the collection) and then check out the other authors who contributed stories you liked.

If you want to use Amazon, what you do is this: Sign in and do searches for your favorite books and authors, and rate them. Then do searches for the ones you didn't like, and rate them. (The rating thing is right above the reviews; they call it "Rate this item to improve your recommendations" so you can do a find for that.) That should make your Amazon recommendations more useful; they recommend books on a "People who liked this also liked:" basis. Then you can mark recommendations as "have it" or "not interested" or move it to your wishlist. Its main flaw (last time I checked) is that it differentiates between different editions of the same book, so you end up seeing essentially the same recommendation several times.

Some books on Amazon will let you read the first ten pages or so; they'll have a "Look inside" thing on the picture of the cover. Similarly, Google Books will let you see small parts of books, although it's more limited. (Tip: try searching for a character's name.)

I second BookMooch.
posted by Many bubbles at 7:07 PM on April 15, 2007

I'll third BookMooch; and they have a new feature that I'm playing with right now actually that gives you recommendations based on your previous "mooches" (based on what others who have received the same books have also read). I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it's looking pretty interesting.
posted by Laura in Canada at 7:13 PM on April 15, 2007

Seconding second-hand bookstores.

Dunno where you live, exactly, but the question mentions Australia, so I'll answer from a Sydney point of view.

New books these days set you back around $30 each, whereas you can pick up second-hand copies from bookstores for around $5-7, on average. Markets are cheaper.

The ones I find have the best range for my tastes (I lean towards literature-in-translation) would be Gleebooks (2nd hand outlet - not the main one) and Berkelouw (Paddinghurst & Leichhardt). Sappho in Glebe is OK, Goulds in Newtown is interesting for treasure-hunting, and there are one or two others in Newtown that are passable. It's quite easy to walk out of these places with ten books for the price you'd otherwise have paid for two books in a new bookstore.

That doesn't answer your question of how-to-choose, but it does address the stated root cause of your desire to be picky.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:15 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Along with the NYRB recommendation, you might want to know about The First One's Free, about free first chapters from WaPo and (in the comments) NYT.
posted by whatzit at 7:18 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if any of the Mefites have hit upon an almost-surefire-method for picking the next book you intend to read?

Trust your gut, pay attention to serendipitous appearances of interesting-looking books in your life, and don't be afraid to stop reading a book that's not doing it for you. Not foolproof, but if you relax a little and let a bit of luck and your instincts guide you - and find a couple of blogs/reviewers you like - you'll do fine. I've been sticking to classics myself, which helps improve the odds I'll find something to like in them. And reading about each author's life often helps me figure out which direction I want to go next.
posted by mediareport at 7:22 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

My favorite how-to method is to sit quietly and wait for people to post questions about new books and authors on metafilter. I know that doesn't seem like a terribly useful answer to your question, but I'm usually able to get a dozen or so new books out of each one, and have discovered some of my all-time favorite authors by this method (I can't rave strongly enough about David Mitchell! (read Cloud Atlas))--I actually get most of my new authors nowadays off of metafilter.
posted by J-Train at 7:23 PM on April 15, 2007

Oh, and--even if the library isn't that handy, could you still go once in a while and stay the day? Then you can collect a giant pile of books that look interesting (I found the Discworld books because they looked interesting, so just browsing is a worthwhile thing) and sit there reading their first chapters and making a list of the ones that seem worth getting. Or if you can't stay that long, actually check out several dozen and do it at home. So you wouldn't be going frequently, just once (or twice, if you check them out) in a while.
posted by Many bubbles at 7:24 PM on April 15, 2007

One technique that works OK for me, as a starting point, at least: you might find that certain publishers put out books of the right kind of genre or quality for you, so you can pick out those ones & decide from the blurb & the first few pages whether you think they are worth buying. From my point of view, Readers International & Serpent's Tail have a consistently high quality rate, for example.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:41 PM on April 15, 2007

Don't underestimate judging books by their covers. It's usually not too hard to figure out who it's being marketed to, and if you don't think you fit that demographic, you probably don't.

And, hopefully you have faith in at least a couple of publishers?

If I want to grab a paperback quickly from an odd selection -- somebody's basement, say -- I scan for Penguins. At the school bookstore: Routledge. In a comic book shop: Fantagraphics. I'm amazed at how often that works.
posted by kmennie at 7:42 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Books are becoming outrageously expensive. $29.99 (in the U.S., anyway) for a hardcover? They must be joking! I just buy all of my books used on Marketplace. Many of the sellers will ship internationally for a few dollars more. There must be used book sellers on the web that are based in Australia. If you wait a couple of months after a book is published, you can usually get the hardcover for about $5-10 via Amazon used books. Paperbacks will often go for $.50-$2. Try checking for books, and sort results by price from lowest to highest.

And watch what you say about JK Rowling, buddy! :)
posted by HotPatatta at 7:46 PM on April 15, 2007

LibraryThing (as mentioned above) is a fun way to find out what other people with similar tastes are reading - I've found a few good reads off there.
posted by teststrip at 7:46 PM on April 15, 2007

I like using amazon to find recommendations. I'll find a good review of a book I already like and see what other books this person likes. It's the equivalent of asking someone you know to recommend a book, but you'll be able to do it with more people.
posted by stavrogin at 7:47 PM on April 15, 2007

I usually do the first line test. If the first line (of the actual novel, not the prologue or foreword or stuff) is good, and interesting and makes you want to read the next bit, then it is likely that the book is good.
posted by dhruva at 8:17 PM on April 15, 2007

For Science Fiction, at least, I read anthologies of short fiction, then jot down the names of the authors that appealed the most and track down their novels.
posted by plinth at 8:20 PM on April 15, 2007

Find someone to read books for you. Luckily, on the internet, there are tons of people who blog about what they read, what they like and what they don't like, so that finding one with reasonably similar tastes to your own shouldn't be too hard. Since you mention Neil Gaiman as a writer you like, he mentions books he likes all the time on his blog (though I should mention that he's been promising regularly, since the inception of his blog back in 2001, to post a list of recommendations. He hasn't yet but who knows, maybe he will any day now). MeFi's own ed has a bookblog at (though, as I type this, it's currently down). It's a good entry point into litblogging because it links to a lot of other literary blogs.

But seriously, it won't beat a good library. Or a bookstore café.
posted by Kattullus at 8:25 PM on April 15, 2007

Response by poster: To the several who've asked - it's not impossible for me to get to a library, it's just not likely to happen on a regular basis. I have much readier access to several retail bookstores (and at least one secondhand one - thanks to those who've suggested this as a worthwhile resource, I'll look into it). I honestly don't mind paying for a good book, since I will read a book I like many times over. I've read Catch 22 ten or twelve times. I've read East of Eden at least half a dozen times, and To Kill A Mockingbird probably more times than that.

Of course, not every book I read has to be of that calibre (so, to cklennon, no I wasn't expecting Steinbeck from Hubbard, I was hoping for a well-written book). What I'm really looking for is a reasonably good chance at an enjoyable read, and for ideas on how to improve those chances. Thank you to everyone who has made suggestions so far!
posted by planetthoughtful at 8:40 PM on April 15, 2007

well, you can rant against the machine, and still not spell, or see multiple and serious and really embarrassing grammatical errors - aghh
posted by caddis at 8:46 PM on April 15, 2007

dhruva: first paragraph test here (after reading the blurb).

A good first paragraph doesn't guarantee a good book, but if an author can't even write a decent first paragraph, you can be certain that the rest of the book will be shit.

Not a guarantee of quality, but a good way of weeding out the crap.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:52 PM on April 15, 2007

Well, often recommendations from authors you like might help. Many authors have blogs. You said you like Neil Gaiman, for instance, - he has one and while, yes, it's mostly about his own writing, he also often mentions other writers/ books he has enjoyed and I find that to be the case with most writer's blogs. I've found some good books that way. Also critics - Bookslut I tend to like the recommendations there, but ymmv.

Like some above, I am also sad about your lack of regular library access. I love the library. While it can't prevent you wasting your time, it can prevent you wasting your money. Sometimes I read a book from the library and then go on to purchase it, because it was just that good. More often, though, I've read a book from the library and been so very glad I did NOT purchase it.
posted by mkim at 10:06 PM on April 15, 2007

re: second-hand bookstores.

i think this is actually a bad idea for this particular poster. what i generally find at second-hand bookstores are the crap books that nobody wants, the obscure or minor works of otherwise well-known authors, and bestselling popular trash. you really have to a) already know what you're looking for when you go in there; and b) get lucky. sure you only spend five bucks on each, but frankly your hit rate is going to be a lot lower buying books that someone decided they didn't like enough to keep.

one thing you might consider is looking at the profiles of people on social-networking or dating sites where there's a "favorite books" thing. find people with similar tastes as you and see what else they like that you haven't read. worth a try anyway.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 10:37 PM on April 15, 2007

On 2nd-hand bookstores: that really depends on both the bookstore & on what is being sought. Many stores really are terrible, especially in the suburbs. What sergeant sandwich describes is pretty true of suburban 2nd hand stores. The ones I mentioned are in the generally bohemian-studenty-professional areas of Sydney, and they tend not to accept crap that won't sell to a generally discerning market. Other Australian capitals will have similar shops - generally best to look around the main university precincts.

Considering the tastes quoted, they're all pretty canonical, mainstream authors - exactly the kinds of things that are easy as piss to find in any 2nd-hand store that isn't catering to the airport novel crowd, true crime or crime fiction readers, or people who like schlocky blockbuster novels or Mills & Boons. No disrespect intended towards the OP, but we're not talking about any particularly obscure literature here, and any selective 2nd hand store will have heaps of this sort of thing.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:00 PM on April 15, 2007

Check your libraries net reservation system. I use my library a lot, but hardly ever browse. I find what I want from some recommendation (Amazon, metacritic, friends) and then reserve it online and then they email me and I go and pick it up.

That and make a list of things you may want to read to make sure you remember recommendations.
posted by sien at 11:06 PM on April 15, 2007

UbuRovias: but a good way of weeding out the crap.

So true. Here, for example, is Dan Brown's first paragraph.
posted by dhruva at 12:02 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I notice a lot of "go to your library" answers when you have specifically said this is not really feasible. I guess you are limited to on ine research. I suggest checking review pages of "quality" online newspapers papers such as The Guardian or Independent and specialist publications such as New York Review of Books or TLS. I also second Library Thing. Of course there are some excellent suggestions to be found right here.
posted by adamvasco at 12:43 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you have a good bookshop in your area? If so, find a bookseller at the store whose tastes are similar to your own, and start asking them for recommendations. The better you are at expressing what you like and don't like in the books, the better they will be at offering good recommendations.

Judging from your list, have you tried Christopher Moore?
posted by drezdn at 2:55 AM on April 16, 2007

I second what adamvasco said. Once I was no longer an angry young man, my patience with bad or borderline books was depleted, so I depend on the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper's, and NPR for book recommendations. (The New York Times and NPR will sometimes include sample chapters.) After one of those pique my interest, I wait and see if I come across an unexpected second review elsewhere for the same novel. If the second review also makes me want to read it, I figure the gamble is worth it.
posted by loosemouth at 3:39 AM on April 16, 2007

Harold Bloom's Western Canon comprises his list of what he considers the most important literature from ancient times to modern. You would have to be massively dedicated and a little foolish to read them all - but this is one attempt to seriously answer the question "Given a limited number of hours left on earth what is the really important stuff I should read?".

In terms of value for money many of the titles are also old and hence inexpensive to pick up.
posted by rongorongo at 3:39 AM on April 16, 2007

I've very picky about books. Whenever I'm asking people for recommendations, and they ask me what I want, I say, I want the best book ever, please.

But I don't usually rely on personal recommendations unless I'm pressed for time. For general book choosing, I read reviews with Amazon open. The reviews usually tell me if a book has *that thing* ...whatever it is that makes me really want to read a particular story. It's such a personal, gut thing, which is why I prefer this to asking others for recommendations. Also the reviews tell me (with stars) if a book might be something that ends up important, and also if an author I like or have been hearing about has a new book coming up. The books that catch my eye go onto my Amazon wishlist. That way, I'll remember them and will have an easy way to notice when they come out.

This all comes with the caveat that I generally read mostly children's books.
posted by lampoil at 5:04 AM on April 16, 2007

All excellent advice above. There's no magic bullet.

This is admittedly self-serving, but another thing to take into consideration is the Publishers Weekly reviews, many of which appear in the Amazon 'editorial reviews' section. Disclaimer: I'm a PW reviewer.

The problem with most Amazon reader-submitted reviews is that they're almost unfailingly glowing unless the reviewer has an axe to grind, which doesn't help the reader much in the end. There are exceptions of course.

At PW there are many reviewers, but each of us has a particular focus, and those are the books we're sent to review. There's one guy that only reviews sex books, for example. So he knows a good one when he sees one. Therefore you're probably going to be fairly safe when it comes to starred PW reviews. They don't ask the sex guy to do reviews on decorating, or Civil War history or crime fiction. Just his area of focus.

I/we obviously don't see everything, but we see more than most for our given genres and spend a lot of time with the books we review.
posted by Atom12 at 6:26 AM on April 16, 2007

I looked at your list and hey -- I like your authors. I second Christopher Moore.

Terry Pratchett recommends Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen is crime-comedy-noir and really, really smart.

Max Barry is fun (Syrup is his even though they spelled his name wrong, Jennifer Government, Company, etc).
posted by whitneykitty at 8:44 AM on April 16, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to those who've suggested Christopher Moore - can anyone recommend a particular book? I'll pop down to the bookstore today and pick it up.
posted by planetthoughtful at 4:38 PM on April 16, 2007

dhruva: wow. that dan brown intro truly was awful. the analysis, on the other hand, had me in stitches.

then again, i used "generally" three times in one paragraph, so i can't write.

Hiaasen is crime-comedy-noir and really, really smart.
Ooooh! Clever crime-comedy-noir! Daniel Pennac does fun darkly comic things with the crime thriller genre, as does Raymond Queneau. Considering movies like Poulpe Fiction, or Perec's unfinished novel 53 days, I think the French - in particular - seem to have a thing for twisted takes on the otherwise cliched-to-high-hell crime genre, although the Italian novel, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana is also right up there.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:09 PM on April 16, 2007

Thanks to those who've suggested Christopher Moore - can anyone recommend a particular book? I'll pop down to the bookstore today and pick it up.

The Stupidest Angel, Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, and Island of the Sequined Love Nun are all really fun, and to me were his most memorable. They're unrelated (some of his books are connected, but they can stand alone, too) so there's not really a reading order. Good stuff.
posted by Many bubbles at 7:51 PM on April 16, 2007

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