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What the Heck Should I Read? Why Is Choosing a Book So Hard?

What the Heck Should I Read? Why Is Choosing a Book So Hard?

Sometimes I do book reviews for my amazing friend, Jennifer Stewart, over at the Burlesque Press Variety Show. She used to tell me what she wanted me to review, but now she says that I should read “whatever I want” as long as it’s relatively new. So all I have to do is find a relatively new book that looks fun to read. Should be easy, right?

Wrong!

First of all, how the heck do I decide what to read? People give me recommendations all the time, but I forget to write them down, or I forget where I wrote them down. When the titles do make it to my “books to read” list, I forget who recommended them to me, and why. Sometimes, it turns out that these people have really bad taste, and I should be wary of all their other recommendations…if I could remember which they were.  Sometimes, it turns out the person hasn’t actually read the book they’re suggesting.  (I once forced my way through a really long novel that I guy I was dating raved to me about, only to find that he’d never actually finished it himself.)

Sometimes I ignore my “books to read” list because it’s just a little too sketchy. I go to the great big smorgasbord that is the Internet. I google “new and noteable fiction.” I google prize winners. I look at librarian recommendations and Good Reads and and Amazon lists and people’s Twitter feeds. I read the descriptions and reviews of new books, but it’s still really hard to tell what I’m going to like. I have eclectic taste. Even with the same author it’s hard to know.  For example, I loved Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, disliked his prize-winning epic, Middlesex, and enjoyed with reservations his coming-of-age novel, The Marriage Plot.  So, all-in-all, I feel like it’s a crap shoot no matter what.

But, let’s say I decide on a few titles that sound promising. Now the problem is that I can’t actually buy the books – I’m too poor for that.

Let me interrupt myself for a moment to say that I’m all for supporting book sales, and I do buy a fair number of new books – I’ve bought at least five or six since the beginning of the year (an average of one a month). But I can’t go around buying new books all the time, and especially not new, hardcover books. I’m only going to buy a pricey, new, hardcover book if I’m pretty darn sure I’m going to like it, and as mentioned in the paragraph above, it’s always a crap shoot.

So instead of buying the books, I go to the library….

Let me interrupt myself again to say that I love the library. Love, love, love everything about it except maybe the homeless lady who smells like pee and is always talking to herself at the computer station. I check out books from the library constantly. And libraries are great about ordering new books. The problem is, people snatch up the new books before they’ve even arrived at the library. I’m serious. I don’t know who these freaky people are, but somehow they find out about new books and place holds on them before the books have even been released. Which means that by the time I figure out I want to read a book and go to the online catalog to place a hold, there are 155 people ahead of me on the waitlist. Meaning I will get to read the book maybe sometime in the next few years.

Which is normally fine for me. I don’t mind reading books from 2008 and not being able to participate in book conversations with my MFA friends who have somehow read every newly-released book on the planet. But reading old books won’t cut it now that Jeni wants me to review new ones.

Who needs a good novel when you can just read a tourist magazine about Wisconsin?

Who needs a good novel when you can just read a tourist magazine about Wisconsin?

So yesterday I realized, hey, I live in Seattle now – a land of book-lovers. There are probably loads of good new books at the used bookstores around town. So I walked down to Mercer Street Books in Lower Queen Anne and looked around. Immediately, I felt overwhelmed. So many books. Which ones are new?  Which one do I choose? I walked up to the clerk, a slim, twenty-something dude with floppy blond hair and tight jeans who I felt certain would have an opinion about which books I should be reading.

“Hi,” I said.

He looked up from his book. He seemed annoyed that I had disturbed him. “Yeah?”

“I do book reviews for a website,” I explained, “and they said I could read whatever I wanted, as long as it was relatively new. So I was wondering if you had any suggestions for me.”

He squinted at me. “Uh, yeah, I really can’t help you with that.”

“I mean, what have you seen around here, or what have you gotten in recently that’s a relatively new book? From the last year or so?”

He shook his head. “Yeah, I really don’t know. I don’t know what we have on the shelves.”

I stared at him. He was a person working in a small used bookstore, and he didn’t know what was on the shelves? I found that hard to believe. And so I pressed him. “You don’t have any ideas? Anything you happened to have seen recently?”

“No. I can’t help you.” He picked up his book again, and I had no choice but to walk away.

I strolled up and down the aisles, scanning the titles to see if anything jumped out at me. When the spines looked especially shiny, I pulled them out and flipped to the copyright date, feeling disappointed when I saw 2009 or 1975.

“Thank you,” I said loudly to the clerk as I left the store. He didn’t look up, and it occurred to me to go snatch the book he was reading out of his hand. I bet it was something new.

Luckily, here in Seattle, it is very easy to find free books!

I did get an old Barbara Kingsolver book out of this free library.

In my ideal world, there would be something like the Pandora radio station, but for books. I would type in  books I like, and this magic technology (let’s call it Calliope) would figure out the common elements of those books, and through some crazy algorithm, find other new titles I would enjoy. In fact, Calliope would actually download the books onto my Kindle the day they were released, and/or automatically place holds for me at the library – whichever function I chose. That way, I wouldn’t have to spend any of my precious reading time figuring out what to read. I’d always have a ready supply of books.

Hey, wait…Is there already something like this out there?  A quick search of google found some Calliope-like sites:  What Should I Read Next? The Book Seer, and Whichbook.  Thank you, Internet!  You are a fount of knowledge!  Except that when I tried out Book Seer, this is the result I got:

In case you can't read this, it says "Amazon recommends:  Nothing...Well, no books anyway.  Of course, you go ask your local bookshop or your local library."

In case you can’t read this, it says “Amazon recommends: Nothing…Well, no books anyway. Of course, you could go ask your local bookshop or your local library.”

Hmm.  It’s no Calliope, that’s for sure, but I’ll play more with these sites, and perhaps I will find them somewhat helpful.

In conclusion, I’m still not sure what I’m going to review for Burlesque Press or how I’m going to obtain it. I did manage to request a new book at the library that has no holds on it, but I worry that no holds means it’s going to suck.  Certainly the book-lovers of Seattle wouldn’t let a good new book slip through their greedy fingers. But, we’ll see. I’ll go pick it up on Monday, and maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Until then, I’ll continue reading old books, like The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling.  (I requested the e-book from the library back in September, and just yesterday I finally reached the front of the line.)

And, of course, if any of you have a book recommendation, new or old, I’d love to hear it. I’ll put it on my “books to read” list, and maybe, one day, far far in the future, I might actually read it.  Will I like it?  Well, that’s a crap-shoot.

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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