19 November 2014

tips for discovering new books

Warning: This is hefty. I recommend you ingest this with a coffee or tea in hand, while wrapped in a cozy sweater -- with heaps of patience nearby. 

The other day my friend inquired-- while staring wide-eyed at my overflowing, truly toppling-over-themselves bookshelves -- just how I go about finding new books to read. How I choose to read them, make my list, thrift them, do I get recommendations, what? 

So, it's been on my mind.

Much of it is elusive to trace: I grew up with parents who were writers, in a highly literary community, and was an English major -- so it seems I have this unsuppressed web of authors and to-read books that swims happily in the current of my DNA. 

But! Because it is currently zero degrees outside, and because I love books, and because I love people who love books, and because books are important -- I shall attempt to tease out and define the many ways in which I come to find new ones, to read them, to love them. 

*Note: Today, I'll be covering some tips specifically for thrifting books. Thrifting is wonderful. It's a chance to expose yourself to new voices, stock up on classics, get extra copies to mark up or give away. However, buying books secondhand means the author makes no commission. So, if you find you love an author after thrifting one of his or her books-- particularly one still living -- do consider buying his/her books new in the future, recommending those books to others, etc. 

Remember your roots. (Or, plotting the inner-circle of your personal reading web.)

I think it's important to change the shape of how you organize your reading history (and plans for the future). Think of how you go about reading more like a web than a list. Study the threads, subtle connections, and move outward and inward (like stitching a mandala) as you please. If you ask me, the best writing is nonlinear; ingest accordingly. 

One thing that's surprising to lots of folks is that in my academic program, we didn't read a ton of classics. It was expected we already had a working knowledge of them. We read some. But, my major did more for me in the way of exposing me to newer, contemporary writers. Often we would read anthologies, with essays or short stories from many writers compiled into one neat volume. This is how I started to read authors like Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Joan Didion -- I could go on forever. 

Now: when thrifting, I love to pick up full books by some of the authors I was exposed to in these courses. And I still love picking up copies of the anthologies themselves -- like the Best American series, or textbook-style anthologies. From this practice, I will still usually discover a new author or two as well. So it's rather an aggrandizing process. 

Name recognition. 

My instinct when thrifting is to scan shelves first based on author, then title. To each her own! Do both, but pay attention to the order, because, well, self-study is fun. 

But: get more resourceful than that. So you have your list of authors you like to read. Great. Spend some time researching who their favorite writers are, who their friends/contemporaries are, and slowly start exploring those authors, too. 

Word recognition. 

Make a list of words to describe the style of prose you enjoy. Go beyond genre and author, really get to the nitty gritty. Do you like non-linear types of books? Terse, flowery, winding, melancholy, magical, clear, honest, colloquial, abstract, expansive, lush? 

I've picked up many a book I've never heard of (and consequently fallen in love) because of well-written flap copy. Composing flap copy is no joke. From a business/marketing standpoint, flap copy can make or break book sales. It is anything but tenuous, so synopsis writers and reviewers make damn sure these abstracts not only portray texts in the most positive light, but also that they are accurate. 

Know your genres. 

In a similar vein...know your genres. Your genres. I love how subjective genre-driven reading is -- how much it varies from reader to reader. This variation is the very lifeblood of reading! It is the reason I might find memoirs (not always, but on the whole) captivating, and my best friend might find them generally dull. It's frustrating and beautiful, and speaks to why literature matters. I tend to like writers who present narrative in a way that aligns with my favored epistemologies, with the angle from which I see the world. The texture of it, the shape of it -- in a way that transcends subject matter. 

For me, memoir, creative nonfiction, poetry, and novels that read like memoirs will forever have my heart. Because thrifting books means I can pick up a text for a buck or two, this means I will usually give just about any book that falls within that scope a shot. And, ta-da! This widens that reading web. 

And, say I pick up a first-person novel set in 1930s Paris and I discover, hey, I'm really fascinated by this setting...this topic leads us to our next point which is...

Topical and adjacent reading. 

...topical and adjacent reading! So, I've talked a bit about how you might expand your web by adding authors, new titles, genres, etc. Another way is by adding topics. 

So, if I decide I'm really interested in 1930s Paris, I might add to this thread by reading other books that somehow integrate this component. Maybe historical nonfiction, maybe more novels, maybe guidebooks, or maybe I just need to go on a walking tour of the actual place (hint, hint, Robbie).

Also consider adjacent reading. Pin down what you like about a certain book, and read a complementary book simultaneously. This is thrilling because it's one way to really hone in on a certain aspect of a text. Let's say I'm reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Why not have a Parisian guidebook on hand -- so I can read about the various place he alludes to? Or, from a writing perspective -- how about reading a handbook to novel writing while indulging in one you find particularly well-composed? It's just one way to enrich your reading & writing experience. I'm always thrifting books with this purpose -- as texts that might complement the texture and taste of other texts. Think of them like dishes. 

And: feel free to take the term reading as literally or non-literally as you please. Maybe you're really caught up in the way this author describes food. Pick some complementary dishes to cook. Rearrange your room to create an inspired atmosphere. Craft. Dress in the style. Whatever. 

Get recommendations. 

Seek them out. Ask your readerly friends (or former professors, high school teachers, or goodreads) for reading recommendations. You may discover that you have vastly different tastes, or extremely similar tastes -- both of which are interesting revelations. 

I have one friend, Leah, who is a particularly interesting reader. She, like me, can be totally hermaphroditic in her reading tastes, and may start the week reading something extremely ornate and florid, and then end with something clear and concise. I love people who are open to such opposing predilections. She and I occasionally share book recommendations, but I also find myself paying attention to what she's reading -- and if I see it at the store later, I'll probably pick it up. 

Find your Leah, or ask someone to be your Leah. If you'd like, I can be your Leah. 

Awards and why they matter. 

Acquaint yourself with publishing speak-ease. Study the differences between awards and accolades (Pulitzer prize, New York Times Notable book, National Bestsellers, New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, National Book Award Winners & Finalists, etc.). 

Study what they mean, study how they're awarded (i.e., who decides on them and why) -- and use this as another filtration system in selecting new books. This is precarious to define, and deeply personal. Some might say bestsellers indicate worth, some might say accessibility. Some might see those terms as isolating, some might see them as opportunities to engage with the general public. Who knows. That's up to you. I could go on about this -- and its relative importance and lack of importance -- for, look, eternity. I'm just going to suggest you research that, and maybe have fun finding new books consequently. 

Look at everything on the shelf. 

I recently had an Instagram friend ask me: how do you go about book-shopping at thrift stores that are extremely unorganized? 

My advice: Make a day of it. Get up early and go to different thrift stores in your area -- you'll start to notice regional differences in what genres and titles reappear. And yes, some will be more organized than others. As for the ones that are less organized...take your time. Start in a corner, read every spine, and make your way around. This might take you an hour, but I'm a firm believer that you have to take in all the layers of chaos in order to get a good haul going. 

This particular friend also mentioned that she never finds poetry at her local thrift store -- which is another topic all its own. I think as you start thrifting books more, you'll find enormous regional differences. In my personal experience, when I'm in Washington, I tend to find armfuls of novels, but also lots of memoirs, poetry -- more language- and sound-driven books -- while in Colorado I often find more bestsellers mixed in with guidebooks -- more pragmatic, help-giving texts. This is not to say I don't find poetry or memoirs ever -- I still do! But the general composition of the shelves feels weighted differently. So, lesson: go thrifting anywhere and everywhere. 

Get used to the idea of reading everything.

This is particularly relevant to thrifting. If a book looks interesting for any reason -- the flap copy, the author's bio, the accolades, the artwork, anything -- get it and read it. You can afford to do this, because you are at the thrift store. Take advantage of that fact, and get things you're on the fence about. You might discover a topic/author/style that you never knew you'd love. 


Start attending the local events at your bookstore (I love the Tattered Cover here in Denver -- some other favorites in the PNW are Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Village Books in Bellingham, and Powell's Books in Portland ) -- make a point of going to readings, book clubs, etc. 

Supporting bookstores -- you know, those arcane places that still sell books made out of paper and glue or thread and ink -- is hugely important. Particularly independents. And, many independent bookstores will re-sell used copies, which is another way to keep expanding your reading web on a budget. They also usually have in-house cafes (where they can allure you with, as the reporter in You've Got Mail famously stated, "designer coffee") which is the loveliest place to read a book -- surrounded by thousands of its peers! 

And, if you live in a place that doesn't have as sprawling a literary community as you'd like (or, you do, but you just can't get enough), follow your favorite book publishers, authors, etc. on social media. I follow Penguin Random House, Chronicle Books, and oh, about a million others on Facebook & Twitter. 

The taste test. 

Finally, when in doubt, sample it. Open it up and read the first paragraph (or a randomly selected one) and if it sits well in your belly, give it a shot. 

I hope this was helpful -- in elucidating the framework of my book-finding process anyway. (And, if you made it this far, you deserve a gold medal.) 

It recently dawned on me that as much as reading is a part of my persona...I so rarely discuss it on here beyond casually mentioning what I'm reading at the moment. So I hope to continue sharing posts like this one. If you have any questions or suggestions re: future posts you'd like to see on the topic of reading/books, please leave them in the comments below. 


  1. This has really opened my eyes to all the genres I could be reading and experiencing! I would love to read a book set in Paris, have you got any recommendations?
    - F - www.elevatorbrain.blogspot.co.uk

    1. I'm so glad to hear that. And re: Parisian-set book recommendations -- do I ever! I think I'll just have to do an entire post on that, actually. Stay tuned. : )

  2. This is perfect; I am in love with your posts! They're all so beautifully written :)

  3. Ah. I recently found my reading mojo mid-flight-from-London-to-Brisbane. As a kid I was that girl who always had a book in her hand. A couple of my friends got mad at me because whenever I'd go to their houses to play I'd gravitate straight to the bookshelf and all I'd want to do was read their books and see what they had. I can remember devouring entire 'chapter books' into the middle of the night whilst my poor friend was probably bored out of her brain and went to sleep exasperated with me. In the last few years, I just havne't been able to do it. I've justified it as 'not enough time' (though I've had plenty of time to watch silly videos on youtube haven't I!) but I think I just fell out of love a little bit. But something has recently changed and it's all I think of.... I'm desperate to spend a Saturday morning thrifting my heart out and spending the rest of the weekend reading my treasures. Yay. This was an amazing post that I'll definitely be coming back to. Thank you Bridget!

    Jemima x

  4. Possibly one of my favorite posts from you to date. How I wish I had a Leah. And that everyone had a Leah.

    Also, I abundantly thank you for answering my questions in the Look at everything on the shelf bit. I plan on doing just that as soon as I get a day.

    <a href="http://www.littleladychang.blogspot.com</a>littleladychangblog</a>

  5. These tips are perfect!! I usually don't buy books, rather I borrow them. But thrifting sounds like a fantastic problem solving idea that would let me buy books without feeling guilty. I'll have to try it some time. And I must say, I'm lucky I have a Leah of my own :)

    The Life of Little Me

  6. I love this! I manage an independent bookstore and you've somehow managed to sum up everything I try to tell inquisitive customers in one post.

  7. I found your blog through a pic in Pinterest and the catcher in the rye edition caught my eye, I have recently bought it online, after reading the book on my e-reader. I just HAD to have it in paper!
    I don't have any problems finding books to read. My main issue is to actually read them! I think I have more books than I cold ever read in my lifetime. I get lots and lots of suggestions, ideas, titles, daily, constantly! from the internet. Social media. People tend to share a lot about their readings, in their pictures (Instagram is a huge source of ideas!), posts, etc. Some years ago, as I wanted MORE of that, I opened up a tumblr (now a facebook page) called "show me your books" where people... well, do that: send pics of their own books and I share them. You are kindly invited to join in!

  8. Love these tips! Shared them with my twitter amigos <3

  9. These are great tips! I generally follow the same sorts of guidelines when I'm searching for new books. But what about libraries? Those are the best places to 'taste' books because there's no commitment, yet you have a whole (literal) library of topics and authors right at your fingertips. I'm big on supporting my local library and the librarians love seeing people my age in there - libraries are not just for children or senior citizens! :)

    1. Love it. I should have clarified that this was specifically more for adding to your own physical library. But I completely agree -- and have a post about libraries coming up, which is why I didn't mention them more here! I'm a big friend o' the library as well. (Only I'm horrific, I mean, literally THE worst about returning my books on time!)

    2. I'm pretty awful with return times as well. Mostly because I get so excited and I check out far more books than I can read in the time I have them. And yay! I look forward to reading that post as well!

  10. This is wonderful! I am a sixth grade teacher so I often turn to thrift stores to fill the shelves of my classroom library. I've noticed that some stores are filled with children's books and others have hardly any at all. Great post. I love your writing style!


  11. My favorite discoveries have been picking up the "book of the month" in the local shops. I don't attend the club meetings; I just read the book. It takes the decision factor out. You get a random and somewhat anonymous recommendation and a wide variety of books you would otherwise never hear about.