Books off the beaten path

Recently a student asked one of my favorite questions: “Can you recommend a good book?”  After we chatted about her tastes, I suggested Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians (she mentioned Harry Potter, and it’s great for now-grown HP devotees), and Tea Obreht‘s The Tiger’s Wife (one of my favorite books, an engrossing novel with elements of magical realism). She checked out one, requested the other and left happy.

Our exchange took place near a beautiful display of new books, and reminded me how much today’s readers rely on recommendations. Whether because of time pressures or the cultural influence of ubiquitous ratings, few library and bookstore patrons seem to browse anymore. They rely on what they’ve heard is good.

Where do they get their information? Mainly from the media, which despite trimming literary coverage still provides most book reviews. There were over 300,000 traditional books published last year in the U.S., and over 2.5 million non-traditional (mostly print-on-demand).  In any given week the media covers a handful of “it” titles (the marketing darlings of large publishers). These few books are reviewed repeatedly, so only a tiny fraction of books get any attention.

Online, there are plenty of  alternatives for readers who want to know more than what publishers are touting.  For crowdsourcing fans, both Good Reads and Library Thing  provide user reviews and discussion groups. Librarians have long enjoyed NoveList, the reader advisory tool from EBSCO. And there are hundreds of independent reviewers whose sites and blogs provide endless recommendations.

One of my favorites is librarian Nancy Pearl. The breadth of her reading is impressive, she groups books into handy categories, and  her comments are heartfelt, warm, and brief. Another warm and witty reviewer is Marie at Boston Bibliophile, whose prodigious reading is mainly focused on recent titles. For erudite and well spoken views on an eclectic mix of books, try Danny Yee’s Book Reviews.

If you are looking for books from small and independent publishers, try ForeWord or Small Press Review, both of which cover these often overlooked titles.  The Short Review, is a gem for short story aficionados.  Poetry fans can consult Contemporary Poetry Review or Gently Read Literature.

This only scratches the surface of free online review content, and I’ve only mentioned non-commercial sites (Powell’s is full of excellent reviews, and even has a user review newsletter, the Daily Dose). But do consider the least technological, most serendipitous approach: spend some time browsing the shelves at your library or indie bookstore, and let yourself be surprised by new choices.