This article was originally published in The Startup.
Choosing books can be a pain.
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have any sort of strategy for it. You know there are so many good books out there and your time is limited, but how to know which are worth reading?
Maybe you just read the bestsellers on display at the airport. Maybe you go with the classics because they look good on a shelf . Maybe you religiously follow lists of books ‘everyone should read before they die’ or whatever. Maybe you grab the first thing you see in a bookstore. Or whichever book is being aggressively marketed on every damn podcast this week.
Either way, there’s no real logic to it.
You probably end up reading a random mix of books, many of them just because they’re popular, that you might not even enjoy. With this mindset, it’s easy to let reading become a chore and to become bored with the general act of reading.
If you only read books you don’t like that much, you’ll end up thinking you don’t like reading. So you’ll read less and less — and your ability to focus on a book will get worse.
This spiral is, I believe, why so many people don’t enjoy reading. From a young age, we’re presented with reading lists and forced to plough through the classics at school.
Most of the classics on the average school reading list are certainly good books (cough-exceptfortheCatcherInTheRye-cough) that are worth reading at some point.
But they are miles from the tastes of the kids who have to read them. Many are quite hard even for adults to understand. So, too many of us end up believing that we’re not good at reading, it’s not fun and we’d rather do something else.
A great reading habit begins with the books you choose. Nothing matters as much as that.
Even if you’d describe yourself as a bad reader, you’ve surely had the experience of adoring a book so much that you took every opportunity to open it and keep reading, even forgoing sleep to get through one more chapter.
Maybe it seemed like that particular book was special. It wasn’t.
There are thousands of others out there that could have the same effect. They’re sitting on shelves and in catalogues, full of words that could captivate you. A few of them could change your life.
The trick is to find them. But they are out there — don’t ever doubt that.
No matter how niche your tastes are, no matter how high your standards, no matter how bored you are by most mainstream book topics — I promise they are out there.
Look, sometimes in life you have to work with whatever your deity of choice gives you. Other times, you get to choose your raw material. And if it feels like you need to force yourself or trick yourself or reward yourself into reading, you’re doing it wrong. You get to choose what you read.
That said, let’s dive into some ways of finding books you’ll actually enjoy.
The obvious methods:
First, if you enjoy one book by an author, look up whatever else they’ve written.
This doesn’t always work with bands or directors (one hit wonders seem so common), but it does work with books. Writers tend to incrementally improve throughout their careers. Although we love talking about ‘breakout’ books, about authors whose debut work is a masterpiece, the truth is usually different. Assuming you like the tone and style, not the topic alone, you’ll probably like their other work.
Second, let’s be honest: Amazon’s book recommendation algorithm is pretty damn good.
Provided you buy a lot of books on there, that is. Having brought hundreds, maybe more, the suggestions do throw up some great books for me. However, Amazon obviously just suggests books similar to ones you’ve already purchased, so this isn’t great for finding something different.
Thirdly, curated lists can be helpful
— provided they’re specific and not just a general list of ‘100 books everyone should read before they die.’ Lots of bloggers publish these, although 99% of them include the same ~20 recent bestsellers. Still, if you like what someone writes and they publish curated lists, this can be a good way to cut out the leg work. At the end of each month, I publish a list of the best books I read that month on my blog, and from time to time more specific lists.
Those are three obvious methods that are slightly better than just reading classics or best-sellers. Now let’s look at some less obvious methods.
Let go of any misconceptions about what you ‘should’ read
When I am looking to choose some books, I ask myself a few questions:
- What am I struggling with right now?
- Has anything new piqued my interest lately?
- Is there an area of my life I want to improve at the moment?
- Has anything been on my mind a lot?
- What have I been gravitating towards?
- Do I have any challenges coming up that I need to prepare for?
You can probably think of your own answers. Then, do some digging and look for interesting sounding books on those topics. This way, you read what you need to, not what you feel you should.
Start lending books to people you know
This might sound counterintuitive and irrelevant. But if you give away a lot of books, you’ll eventually get given a lot of books. Other people might see you in a different way to how you see yourself, so they’ll have another perspective on what you might enjoy. (And no, you won’t get them back. Few people return books.)
The same goes for generally recommending books. Because I write about this a lot, I get a lot of emails suggesting books which often alerts me to the existence of ones I might not have found otherwise.
Okay, admittedly I also get mainsplain-y emails that go something like “Hey, I saw that you know how to read! There’s a great author you should check out, his name is Ernest Hemingway/ Jack Kerouac/Franz Kafka/Jack London/ [insert name of male author literally everyone over the age of 5 in an English-speaking country has heard of.]” Which is incredibly condescending, but most of the emails are super helpful.
Bibliographies. Always read the bibliography
I feel like I say this all the time, but: bibliographies are your best friend.
If you’ve enjoyed a book, read the damn bibliography because:
a) it takes a lot of reading to write a book, and you’re likely to find a comprehensive list of everything that inspired that author.
b) the books listed tend to be, on average, 20 or so years older than the one you’ve just read, so they may be gems that have faded out of popularity.
c) and it’s the ideal way to go deeper into a topic. I honestly find at least a quarter of my books through bibliographies.
The quotes section on Goodreads
I don’t really use Goodreads in the way it’s intended for, but I love the site for one main reason: the quotes section. This is an underrated gem which makes my life so much easier. I mostly rely on this when I’m researching for work.
Why? Because people who upload quotes tag them with whatever topics they consider relevant.
These might not be what the book is officially about, they might have their own interpretation, and a particular line or paragraph may have a different meaning. As the quotes are all uploaded by users, you get a mix of whatever stands out to that person and whatever it means to them.
For that reason, it’s a goldmine for discovering books:
- Take a topic you’re interested in (ideally something specific) and search for it.
- Read through the quotes that comes up until you find one that sounds interesting.
- Then click on the name of the book, look at the other quotes (and perhaps the reviews and author profile.)
If it sounds good — viola, you’ve found your next read. You might even want to start from the last page of results to find ones you’re unlikely to have heard of before.
Seriously, I find so many books this way. In fact, Goodreads is my secret weapon when I do research for clients. It’s easy to find unusual source texts so I know I won’t be working from the same generic ones as everyone else. While this section is presumably intended for finding quotes, it’s much better for finding books.
For example, I recently wrote an article about the pipedream of escaping society. Let’s say I want to read more books on this topic. So I go to Goodreads and search ‘escaping society’ and get 373 results. As per usual, the first few are from well known books I’ve either read or don’t want to read. But a few pages further, this quote pops up from an author whose name I don’t recognise:
I click on the book and read a bit more about it — the summary, more quotes, how readers have tagged it:
Then I suddenly remembered that the author’s name is familiar. Conor Oberst references him in the song Barbary Coast (Later) (feel like Paul Gaugin painting breadfruit trees/ in some far off place where I don’t belong.) Having listened to that song hundreds of times and heard it live thrice, I’d previously tried to find the author mentioned (that same song prompted me to read John Muir for the first time) so this is a cool coincidence and I intend to buy the book.
So although Gauguin isn’t a particularly obscure author, I doubt I would have made the connection otherwise. That’s not the best example, but I do find a lot of books that way.