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Finding What to Read (Part 2)

August 18, 2011

Last time I talked about my “To Read” list, but I didn’t get to the gist of what I wanted to talk about, which is: How do you decide what goes on your reading list?  How do you find books you want to read?  How do you learn about new authors?

For myself, the books on my list have ended up there through any number of circuitous paths.  The George R. R. Martin books, for instance, I’d been hearing good things about for years before I finally bought a copy of the first four at a used book store.  I think I first heard about them on a forum I used to frequent at an RPG community site, where those books came up often in favorites lists.  Brandon Sanderson, meanwhile, I became aware of when he was chosen to finish “The Wheel of Time” after Robert Jordan’s untimely passing.  (Jordan’s books, on the other hand, entered my consciousness mainly because my parents bought them when I was younger). 

Most of the books on my list, however, came to this list over the last couple years, and especially after I started this blog.  I started collecting links to the websites and blogs of different authors.  I think my first one may have been for Brandon Sanderson’s blog.  But John Scalzi‘s came very soon thereafter.  And Scalzi’s proved very entertaining and informative – especially a regular feature he does on his blog called “The Big Idea“.  “The Big Idea” features authors who talk about the central idea or core inspiration at the heart of their recently published or soon-to-be-published books.  I thought it was great of Scalzi to make his personal platform available to other authors to pimp their upcoming books… and many of those books thusly pimped sounded pretty cool.  This is the case, for example, for Ready Player One.  Another example: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  A significant percentage of the books on my list got there by this vehicle.

Others created buzz in other ways.  The Hunger Games generated a lot of excitement among the Harry Potter-loving ladies in my church community, which is how Dear Wife learned about them, I believe.  Regardless, Dear Wife read them, and enjoyed them.  So now, they are on my list.  Or others because one author or another I follow has recommended them.  Several are on this list because I follow the blogs of the authors (and I followed those blogs, usually, because the author has said something insightful and useful about the publishing industry at one time or another, and was linked by an author I followed before that) – and feeling some gratitude for the useful things they sometimes say on their blogs I wanted to pick up one of their books to read, and those that ended up on this list were the coolest-sounding of those books they had written.  And still others were just racking up awards and nominations and recognition and buzz in the industry in general, so that wherever I looked, I saw references to how awesome that book was.

These days there area  ton of ways to find new books to read.  Amazon recommends similar books if you browse or buy something.  Lots of folks are on Goodreads, which is how Dear Wife learns about a lot of books (such as The Help, which she’s in line for at the local library when a copy comes available).  Blog Reviews are a dime-a-dozen.

In fact, there are so many ways to find out about new books to read, that a lot of those ways can sometimes just become noise.  And then we start tuning it out.  In a way, that’s why all these different sources even exist.  Each is trying to cut through the clutter and provide a clear, objective, and reliable way of learning about new books.  Any given reader probably has a few sources he or she turns to most often that they consider consistently reliable at recommending good books to read.

Myself… I find myself increasingly ignoring most of the sources that generated this book list in the first place, at a semi-conscious level.  Not because those sources have produced bad results but because they’ve produced so many good books that I now want to read, at a rate much faster than I can possibly hope to read them.  Until I can make progress reading through the books already on my list, I’m not really very interested in making it longer.  Which only means it take a lot more to impress me enough, now, to want to add a book to this list.

Actually, I talked about this problem before, in a blog post I titled “A Surplus of Quality“.  In it, I touch on the problem of an unmanageably long reading list, but the main thrust of that post is that as the “walls” of traditional publishing come down and the publishing of books is increasingly disintermediated (i.e. self-publishing and digital self-publishing increase) that the loss of the gatekeepers will actually lead to a dramatic increase in the availability of good quality fiction: dramatic enough that many readers will be unable to keep up with the overflowing blessing of great reading.  It’s a thesis I still believe is essentially true – for me, at least, and for others like me who don’t read nearly as fast as we’d like to.

In this world, high quality sources of reading recommendations will become even more important.  Because wherever we look, there’s plenty to read.  But for many of us, we don’t have time to read all of it.  We need a filter to help us keep our reading lists manageable and enjoyable.

How about you?  How do you find books to read?  What sorts of selection criteria and filters do you use?  What sites do you frequent?  What reviewers do you trust?

Do share in the comments.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011 8:31 am

    I usually look for a certain publisher or author. Cause when i like a style i stick to it, no matter what the author writes… also the publisher as most publishers stick to somewhat a same genre.

    • August 18, 2011 8:55 am

      That’s actually one of the biggest arguments for the continuation of the traditional publishing industry: because I think there are a lot of readers like you who at least partly rely on publishing houses and imprints to broadcast a certain message about the types of books they publish. And that’s a useful function. Even as the publishing industry changes, I suspect this function will continue to be an important role in communicating information about books to readers.

  2. August 18, 2011 12:09 pm

    Hmm I’ve never consciously tried to think about it. Lately I’ve gotten most of my recommendations from the blogosphere. I don’t always read reviews, but after a while when a title comes up many times, or I keep running into certain author’s information (via twitter, interviews) it tends to get stuck in my head and I will look up what they’re writing. I also look at awards lists, and other people’s to read/ want to read lists.

    A couple recent additions to list lately were because I read short stories online.

    And I happened to buy a few books in the bookstore because the book I wanted was sold out, and I picked up others by the same author, or find another book I’d forgotten about by another author and get that instead. I can’t go to a bookstore without buying something. It’s a sickness LOL

    • August 18, 2011 3:13 pm

      Hey, at least it’s a sickness that’s (pardon the oxymoron) healthy! 😉 But yeah, it’s hard to think about where you first learned about a specific book. The blogosphere really does sometimes seem like a nebulous, non-specific source, even though theoretically we can always track down the original.

  3. August 18, 2011 3:05 pm

    Usually I find new books through blogs (lots of times through my favorite authors’ blogs nowadays since they like to recommend other people’s stuff, too) or just browsing on Amazon, like when I happen to look up a book and they make suggestions based on what others have bought along with that same book. I hate to say it, but the best chance of catching my attention is either with a killer cover design or at least an intriguing title. Or if everyone’s talking about it, then I guess I’ll have to at least read the blurb and/or first chapter eventually!

    I’ll also find books by specific keyword searches depending on what I’m interested in at the time. That’s probably how I go about finding most books to buy these days.

    I guess I really love Amazon, though, because I won’t buy a book without first looking at their customer reviews. I prefer trying 3.5+ star novels, though sometimes I’ll take a chance on a 3-star. (I don’t read quickly enough to have time to sift or sit through a bunch of so-so stuff, ya know?)

    • August 18, 2011 3:17 pm

      Agreed. I wish I read faster… but the fact is I don’t, so my reading time is limited. Mostly, however, I’ve learned to distrust Amazon reviews at a general level. If I do look at their reviews, I’ll pick a few of the best and worst rated reviews and actually read them. If the reviews are either articulate or inarticulate that tells me something about the reviewer, and about the quality of the reviewer’s opinion. More often, these days, I find that the opinions of other writers and pro-authors to be far more predictive of the likelihood I’ll like something than anonymous reviews.

  4. August 19, 2011 8:25 am

    It’s refreshing to see someone suggesting that there will be a surplus of quality as opposed to the usual complaints about a so-called “tsunami of crap”. I think you’re dead right about that and it couldn’t be better for the future of literature.

    I generally find books through word of mouth. I hear them praised by acquaintances or people whose opinions I respect. Also my husband. (Aha. that job was unwarranted because he’ll never read this but it’s hard to break that habit.)

    However, at the moment I have decided to engage in an intentional study of the modern fantasy genre starting with George MacDonald and William Morris and going author by author through the decades until today. I’m doing this because I had no so long ago begun to realize how little I know of the history and depth of my favorite genre and I want to better understand it. The fantasy genre in general goes back to Gilgamesh of course and I don’t have time for that, so I’m just focusing on the modern era. I’ll be chronicling the process on my own blog. It’ll probably take me ages, but be well worth it.

    • August 19, 2011 10:12 am

      To be fair… I don’t actually discount the “tsunami of crap” theory, either. My point is that crap aside, there’s actually likely to be a lot more good quality stuff out there than actually makes it to print in the traditional channels. But, to be sure, all those people that aren’t actually any good – but who think they are – that aren’t making it through the traditional channel filters will (and are) increasingly turning to the new, self-controlled channels. I suspect, however, that even in the new channels there are sufficient filters in place (in the form of easily-tuned-out noise) to keep most of that crap from actually hitting the consciousness of the reading public. But the good stuff? For people like me, who read tooooo slowly, we have to be even more selective because there’s no way we’ll have time to keep up with even the good quality stuff. As illustrated by this pair of posts, at least for me. For instance: your attempt to read through the entire historical body of the fantasy corpus in detail, chronologically? I can’t even dream of doing it. I hit the highlights, the timeless classics, and the cliff’s notes version of some few others. That’s all I have time for.

    • August 19, 2011 10:14 am

      I should add, however, that I applaud the effort to attempt such a thorough reading. For those who can accomplish such a feat, it will stand them in good stead. Also, I am ashamed to realize, actually, that I used the word “actually” perhaps a half-dozen times too many in my reply. Perhaps I can be forgiven for such a styllistic cataclysm?

      • August 19, 2011 11:05 am

        I’m not saying that people are necessarily wrong about there being a tsunami of crap. I saying that 1. crap is in the… brain of the reader? and 2. so what? As you said, the current system is set up to easily allow you to tune out the noise. I LOVE LOVE LOVE samples. It’s one of the most brilliant ideas ever and I think it will shape the future of publishing.

        I not attempting to read the entire corpus of fantasy. Oh God, no. I am however trying to get a good selection of all the important, popular, influential books from the time of Morris onward. And I’m still trying to compile the list. There are so many decades of which I have been so ignorant for too long and so many authors I’d never heard of.

        The Fantasy genre today feels to me like a country that has forgotten its history and veered too far away from its roots. I hope to do my little part to change that. But first I must understand that history myself.

      • August 19, 2011 11:28 am

        Hmm. Sometimes I wonder, actually, if the fantasy genre hasn’t grown too self-referrential. It’s hard to enter modern adult fantasy if you weren’t introduced to it as a kid – because there’s a language and a set of common, core assumptions and tropes. And the focus these days is to challenge and stretch those core assumptions and push them in new directions, or to avoid those tropes (and in avoiding, call attention to them). But for a neophyte, that’s all a bit overwhelming. The answer always seems to be to redirect neophytes back to the classics, to get up to speed on the modern genre – but I’m not sure that’s helpful because styles and modes of writing have changed dramatically over the decades, and quite frankly a lot of the old classics are unreadable, stylistically, by any contemporary who just wants a casual, enjoyable read. I love Tolkien, for instance, but Tolkien is work. You have to want it to undertake it, because Tolkien’s use of language is not for the feint of heart. So, it seems to me, these days YA is actually the best entry point for new readers to engage the fantasy genre – because YA is for whatever reason allowed to rehash fantasy tropes unquestioned – and to gleefully explore that space and world that drew us all into the genre in the first place – whereas adult fantasy isn’t. But anyway… yes… as full an education of the history of the fantasy genre as can be had would be great if you want to engage the genre at a more meaningful level these days. And even though that’s partly my goal… I still don’t have time for more than the cliff’s notes, as I said. Kudos to you, regardless.

  5. August 19, 2011 3:06 pm

    Gasp! Tolkien isn’t work! It’s the purest joy!

    But seriously, I would only say that the Silmarillion is difficult in any way (as well as the other posthumous works). The Hobbit and LOTR are not a difficult read. And if they are considered difficult today then I fault our culture and not Tolkien. We should not cater to the lazy reader.

    I cannot say that I have encountered this phenomenon you describe, wherein you need to know the terms and tropes of fantasy to read it without confusion. Perhaps I’ve been reading the wrong fantasy? However, my instinct tells me that this is because fantasy has forgotten its roots and its purpose and has become something foreign and, in my opinion, less beautiful than it was. The modern mind has taken it and warped it. But that is a subject to rant about on my own blog.

    • August 19, 2011 3:14 pm

      See, I’m not sure the experience of those of us who grew up on fantasy is indicative of what the average audience experiences. We don’t see the need for knowing those tropes and archetypes because for us they’re normative. They’re part of our collective experience, part of the language we speak, and therefore they’re transparent to us. But give a lot of modern fantasy to somebody who’s never read anything in fantasy before (or, for that matter, watched a fantasy-influenced movie or TV show) and I’d wager they’ll be lost. Okay… you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t had any contact with Fantasy these days (see my old post “The Conquest of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction“, for example). So maybe that’s a pointlessly academic assertion. Anyway. As I said: I love Tolkien, and others like him. But his high linguistic style is a different sort of writing than what you’ll typically find published today. I enjoy it, but I can’t really classify it as a casual read.

      • August 19, 2011 3:34 pm

        Well, let me clarify then that I didn’t grow up on Fantasy. I grew up thinking that fantasy and sci fi were for geeks and I didn’t want to be classified as one of them. I only started reading it about 10 year ago and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. But as soon as I succumbed to the siren song of LOTR, I knew that I was lost to the genre forever. It was a transforming experience.

        But I did spend my teen years reading the classics so perhaps I was prepared for the language. Still, I say the problem is not with the writing of the classical masters, but with the degradation of our convenience oriented culture and I will not give in to it! 😉

      • August 22, 2011 9:27 am

        Well, your younger self was probably right. Those of us who read stuff like Tolkien growing up, we were a lot of geeks. 😉 But yes, I do imagine reading (and enjoying) the classics probably exercises the mind in such a way as to better prepare you for Tolkien than reading a lot of modern fiction would. It is, after all, the same source material to which Tolkien himself turned to pull a lot of the inspiration for his work. Whether you want to follow more closely in those footsteps today is really a matter of choice and aesthetics. My earlier comments about writing in a more modern style, though, is more about commercial and market viability – which I realize is not every writer’s goal. Some will certainly find their work more satisfying if they hew to a sort of ancient-epic style aesthetic, and for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing, that can be a beautiful thing indeed.

  6. September 4, 2011 9:09 am

    I find most of my books through recommendations. I also like Scalzi’s Big Idea series, for some reason this ends up being much better than blurbs at getting me interested in a story.

    However, I’d view the books I read on a quality metric of: (1: didn’t finish (or at least didn’t want to finish); 2: enjoyed, but won’t seek out another book by that author; 3. loved and want to read everything else by that author.) By this measure, I don’t think I’m finding books in a way that matters to me. I’ve read one (1) and one (3) over the last year and all of the other books have been twos.

    • September 6, 2011 8:57 am

      I agree… there’s something inherently more interesting about the format of “Big Idea” that sparks my imagination and enthusiasm for books better than a plot blurb. Interesting, though, that your system of determining books is not working out so hot, being as the majority of books end up being in the mediocre-to-goodish range. So there’s definitely room for improvement in the way that you find books to read? But how could your preferences better be met?

Trackbacks

  1. Who’s on my reading list for the next few weeks? « …At Your Fingertips
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