“What’s the best way to find a book?”

This is a legitimate question a customer posed to me while I was at work in a bookshop. I’m going to use it here in the context of deciding what to read next, but she meant it literally, basically and stupidly. I was on a register serving a sizeable queue of Christmas shoppers, but took a moment to peer over my glasses at her with an air of disbelief. “Look on the shelves,” I suggested helpfully. Perhaps she thought she was in a different store that sold lots of things that aren’t books, and that we hid them in the middle of a hedge maze. Who’s to say? She didn’t appear to find my advice particularly useful, and I gave her my best “ask a stupid question…” look. I correctly assumed she was after a particular book, and not any old paperback that crowded our shelves. I followed up with (and this is across the store, because why would you approach staff for help when you could do so at a distance in raised tones?)…

“Do you know the title or author?”
“No.”
“Do you know what it’s about, or what genre it is?”
“No… I think it’s non-fiction. Where are your non-fiction books?”
“Lots of places. Is it a biography? About sports? Gardening? Cooking? Military history? Australian history? Any other history? Self-help? True crime? Travel? Art? Music?”
She looked flummoxed.
“Why don’t you have a look around and when I’ve got a moment I’ll help you find it?”

The customer I was serving rolled her eyes and wished me a nice afternoon. I reciprocated and took a deep breath. Oh well, at least she wasn’t as bad as the lady who had read this really great book and wanted to buy it for her sister, but all she remembered of it was it was “about stuff.” Incidentally I found exactly the book she was after (I amaze even myself sometimes) but that’s another post.

So other than looking on the shelves, what’s the best way to find a book? I personally stand by my aforementioned guidance and find looking on the shelves a great place to start. Not much point deciding to read something and not being able to find it; that’s what lists are for. In fact, this was exactly how I discovered my latest read.

I was perusing the stacks of the library trying to figure out what mood I was in before consulting one of the several lists I carry on my phone, when out of the corner of my eye spotted Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Confession: I had never read any of his books. I had thought about it, because Tori Amos references him on no fewer than four of her albums and he’s her daughter’s godfather, but was somewhat reluctant. I had a vague idea that he wrote something like fantasy, had something to do with graphic novels, and has been read by people I know and like. I also recalled being asked at work once if we had a copy, and performing a search for Nancy Boys. We had the boys of neither Nancy nor Anansi in stock, and I made no further room in my life for books with such fantastical titles. Anyway, I saw it at the library and thought it about time I put my suspicions down the returns chute; don’t knock it til you’ve read it, right? At worst, I’d spend the time it took me to read fifty pages (my general rule for the opportunity a book has to impress me) and it wouldn’t cost me any money. Two days on, I’ve read all 334 pages (plus an excerpt at the end for another of his novels, and the interview with NG that prefaced it) and am completely sold. I’m very glad that although it took me a while to give him a chance, at the age of 29 I probably have sufficient life-expectancy to read a few more Neil Gaiman novels.

“Looking on the shelves,” worked a charm. Often I have books thrust upon me by my friends, and at this stage have a fairly good idea of whose opinion I might share and recommendation I can trust. A typical endorsement from Frau (my mum) is, “I got this book at the tip. It won some award. I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” In fact, in years gone by I would occasionally phone her when at a literary impasse. I’ve trained her well, my old mum, and she’d counter, “What should I read?” with “Give me a shortlist.” With a fair idea of what I’d read recently, and the knowledge that I often chase something high-brow with something a little less refined, she’d say, “You haven’t read any Milan (Kundera) for a while. Why don’t you read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting followed by that one about Marcia Brady?” One in a million, she is. Which means there are 22 other people in Australia who can’t figure out how to remove the TV subtitles or reset the fuse box, but can provide me trustworthy reading suggestions.

I rarely read reviews, except out of professional interest. One person’s opinion may differ significantly from mine, and I’ve never seen someone write, “I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” In fact, I’ve found reviews only really serve to set me up for failure. The reviewer may declare that the sun shines out of the author’s every orifice, in which case the scene is ripe for disappointment, or slam the prose of something I might enjoy wholeheartedly, putting me off them forever. For me, professional reviews reside in dangerous territory, and I give them a wide berth. Not to mention my pet peeve of searching for a blurb only to find the back cover and first five pages concealed beneath the praise of every person who received an advance copy.

One epigram I find particularly specious (other than “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as I find there are plenty of things that may not kill you but instead leave you weakened for life) is “never judge a book by its cover.” In fact, one assignment I had to do in librarian school was the antithesis of this quip, and as it turns out you can judge rather a lot by a book’s cover. I stumbled across a well-priced copy of When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, and with interest piqued by its unusual title and the appearance of its cover, paid my pocket money to make it my own. I’ve read it three times now and, as it was Winman’s debut novel, feel I’ve backed a winner. I was well-placed in (as opposed to ahead of) the game when her second novel A Year of Marvellous Ways was released, and have a new love whose career I will ardently follow for life. Suffice to say, it was one of the greatest snap-judgments of my life and I loved every word of it.

On the whole, good old word of mouth works for me. If we’re friends, we’ve probably talked about books. If we’re not, you likely haven’t read any. If we’ve worked together, there’s a fair chance it’s been at a bookshop and you can confidently tell me, “If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy that.” We booksellers are often overqualified, underpaid, and make it our business to read books we probably won’t like, or can trust the experience of one of our own. So next time you stumble into a bookshop, library or friend’s living room, instead of staring at their shelves blankly and asking, “what’s the best way to find a book?” I suggest you look at the shelves, match judgment to your mood, compile a shortlist, and if you’re still stuck, phone a friend.

 

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2014 Reading List

Another year, another eclectic reading list. I dumped the guy who didn’t like reading, which freed up time for more important things. Clever move given that I was privy to pre-release copies of a number of books. Yep, being a professional book-reader certainly has its perks. I stalled for a while around The Goldfinch because it’s so darn long, and a shame I don’t have my own copy on the days I need a solid doorstop. That book really should count for three. Nevertheless, I got through my share of crime and drug related literature, as well as one truly awful biography of JKR. Don’t worry, I left a scathing review on Good Reads should anyone else be tempted to fall into that trap. Interestingly, there was not a single reread. Towards the end of the year, however, my library was severely restricted to true stories, hence the number of (auto)biographies I would probably never otherwise read. And the one about the sacred path of the warrior. Warrior? Me? No ninja swords here: the only sharp item I carry is my wit. And I’m gonna cut you up, bitches.

  1. Doctor Sleep – Stephen King
  2. Feed – Mira Grant
  3. Wonder – R. J. Palacio
  4. The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
  5. Orange is the New Black: My Time in a Women’s Prison – Piper Kerman
  6. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne
  7. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  8. Gerald’s Game – Stephen King
  9. Hell’s Angels – Hunter S. Thompson
  10. Two Wolves – Tristan Bancks
  11. A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon
  12. You Should Have Known – Jean Hanff Korelitz
  13. The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules – Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg
  14. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull – Richard Bach
  15. The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
  16. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
  17. Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  18. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July
  19. Shotgun Love Songs – Nickolas Butler
  20. On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
  21. Under the Duvet – Marian Keyes
  22. The Awakening of Miss Prim – Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
  23. The Psychology of Harry Potter – edited by Neil Mulholland, PhD
  24. Schindler’s Ark – Thomas Keneally
  25. J. K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter – Marc Shapiro
  26. Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law – Helen Garner
  27. The Boy who Loved Anne Frank – Ellen Feldman
  28. The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
  29. Shadow of the Dolls – Rae Lawrence
  30. The World’s Most Fantastic Freaks – Mike Parker
  31. Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan
  32. The Bridge to Holy Cross – Paullina Simons
  33. Corduroy Mansions – Alexander McCall Smith
  34. Evil Serial Killers: In the Minds of Monsters – Charlotte Greig
  35. Pushing the Limits – Katie McGarry
  36. The Wind and the Monkey – Robert G. Barrett
  37. Packing Death – Lachlan McCulloch
  38. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – E. L. Konigsburg
  39. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
  40. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values – Robert M. Pirsig
  41. Not Without my Sister – Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones & Juliana Buhring
  42. Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  43. The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith
  44. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
  45. If I Knew Then – Amy Fisher
  46. A Million Little Pieces – James Frey
  47. My Friend Leonard – James Frey
  48. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Paul Torday
  49. The Clan of the Cave Bear – Jean M. Auel
  50. Selected Stories – Alice Munro
  51. Levels of Life – Julian Barnes
  52. On the Road – Jack Kerouac
  53. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
  54. The Boat – Nam Le
  55. Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper – Diablo Cody
  56. Cocaine Confidential: True Stories Behind the World’s Most Notorious Narcotic – Wensley Clarkson
  57. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  58. The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals – Michael Pollan
  59. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  60. Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs – Marc Lewis
  61. Hard Eight – Janet Evanovich
  62. Wilful Negligence: A Teenage Autobiography – Thadeus Hunt
  63. Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior – Chogyam Trungpa
  64. Smiling at Shadows: A Mother’s Journey Through Heartache and Joy – Junee Waites and Helen Swinbourne
  65. Nefertiti Street – Pamela Bradley
  66. My Destructive Ways – Honest John
  67. Bossypants – Tina Fey
  68. Saving Cinnamon – Christine Sullivan
  69. Fred Hollows: An Autobiography – Fred Hollows with Peter Corris