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?”
“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.