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.
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.
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.
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.
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.