Hunting down different ways of choosing a new book
It is no secret that I am one of those people who mix ‘real’ books with reading on a Kindle. I am therefore in thrall to Amazon in many ways, but I have my little rebellions. I’ve never yet posted a review there, for example — their policy of deleting reviews where the author is mentioned by their first name annoys me, so I probably never will. And then there’s the attempt to get you to spend more by giving you recommendations. Since these are based on what you’ve looked at or bought they can sometimes be hilariously off-target – I don’t want a copy of Room on the Broom because I have now bought the christening present I needed and, having got 1Q84 in a 3 volume box-set, I don’t need a hardback copy of 1Q84 Books 1 & 2. Even when they get it right, the books they are pushing seem to end up being the same ones that have been reviewed in the papers, are face out on the shelves or piled high on the tables in Waterstones: the latest ‘must-reads’, the big-name authors, the safe choices. While many of these are as great as the publishers claim, what of those I might like as much or even more that don’t have the marketing budget behind them? Or are old and now out of print or neglected? How do I find those?
People help, of course. Bookcrossing friends in particular are great at passing on books they think I will like … and sometimes even get it right. But they refract their ideas through the prism of their own reading and have their own impression of what I like, which may not be the whole story. Hence the misses. Sites such as goodreads and LibraryThing don’t suffer from limited knowledge of what is out there in the same way as a single person, but they do depend on me telling them what I read, which takes time. I now have a few hundred books rated on goodreads, from pretty much across the full spectrum of my reading, and can be fairly sure I will like anything it suggests. But what if I’ve read something new and brilliant and want something else just like it, an idea not influenced by all the other things I’ve read and enjoyed before?
One place to try is the Gnod Literature Map. It’s a sort of virtual Hay Festival: you type in the name of an author and it appears in the middle of the screen with a whole lot of other names jostling around it. They push and shove each other into place and finally settle down – not always legibly – in a pattern which is meant to show how similar the authors are to each other. It’s fun, but it tends to be biased towards big names where there are easy points of comparison, and it only suggests authors, not books.
What Should I Read Next? offers suggestions based on individual books, and it does stray out of the usual. For example, when I put in The Old Man and the Sea, as well as the obvious Melville and London and Steinbeck that I could have come up with for myself, it gave me a Flashman novel, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and Billy Collins’ Nine Horses – so popular fiction, non-fiction and poetry as well as more of the same. It then takes you back to Amazon, so you can find out what you’re getting from what seems to be the root of all online book knowledge.
But what if you want to try something completely different? A book it’s worth taking a chance on? Everyone I know enjoys discovering a great book they’d never heard of or wouldn’t have chosen to read. I’d like more surprises or new delights than one every few months. whichbook can make that happen. Instead of starting with something you have read, you choose what type of thing you would like to read. You can pick, for example, how happy or sad you want your next book to be, along with where it sits on three other scales from a selection of about a dozen: funny/serious, easy/demanding, long/short and so on. Alternatively you can pick aspects of character, plot and setting. You then get a set of suggestions with potted reviews of each one. I’ve no idea how extensive their search is but each time I’ve tried it’s come up with a mixture of the new and the old, and always more unfamiliar than obvious. (Recently I put in happy, funny, optimistic & short and up popped Some Things Matter by the lovely James Nash.) Best of all, there are two links below each book. Buy takes you to … go on, guess where? (Actually there are sometimes links to other online retailers and you can choose which to follow.) Borrow takes you to a map from which you can get to the online catalogue of various library services around the UK, find out if the book is available and request it. How cool is that?
Which of course brings us full circle. Sometimes there’s no better way to find a new book to read than the old-fashioned, low-tech solution of walking into the library or a bookshop, choosing one with an intriguing cover or title, reading the blurb, dipping into a few pages and then taking it to the counter.
A version of this article was first published in The Earlsdon Literary Magazine, February 2013