How I Find The Books I Won’t Shut Up About

When you read as much as I do (164 books in 2020), people wonder three things. 

1. How do you have time to read that much?

I rarely watch TV, don’t drink often, don’t go on social media (I deleted the apps off my phone, I recommend you do too, I promise you won’t lose friends), and barely touch my phone during the day unless I’m listening to podcasts or texting/calling friends. And no, my reading habits don’t change that much when I’m working or at school. In fact, I tend to read more when I’m busier.

2. Are you anti-social?

Nope. I’ve been in a committed relationship for four years and have quite a few friends (more friends than Bullied High School Dan thought he’d ever have). I love spending time with my friends in person and cherish meeting new people. While reading is an “anti-social” activity (in the vernacular definition of that word: you can’t read with someone else), it is a social activity. 

Books fill your brain with ideas about how to improve your social relations. There are so many times when I finish a book and I’m like, “I need to talk to so-and-so about this.” Reading Notes from Underground helped me understand a friend of mine who it seemed like was edging closer to being the Underground Man every day. My partner and I are currently reading a chapter of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex a day. It’s giving us a great opportunity to talk about other stuff besides COVID and our daily gripes and struggles. 

It is obvious how good books make you a better person, if used correctly. (There are a lot of people who read books just so they have an excuse to swing their “intellectual” dick around.) Books give you wisdom by showing you how human beings have thought about the perennial problems over the centuries. Not all books are created equal, but when you read enough, you develop a critical sense as to which ones are not full of shit. I wish more writers read more because they’d realize that the books they’re writing have already been written (i.e. lonely + angry + sexually frustrated man vs the world). I also wish fiction writers read more nonfiction because too many stories fail a basic fact check. 

3. How do you find all those books?

Archangels deliver them to me while I am sleeping. One time they accidentally missed my office and I woke up with a dented copy of Das Kapital and a black eye. 

Just kidding. 

My three main sources for books are the Internet, friends/indie bookshop employees, and curiosity. 

While I believe the Internet is a reading time waster, websites like Reddit and Five Books are amazing resources for finding the books you want to read and the books you’ll want to read. Five Books publishes interviews with experts about what they think the best five books in a particular subject are. Even if you don’t end up buying the books, the interviews give you an amazing introduction to the subject. (I really liked their articles about Italian Political Philosophy and Bohemian Living.) They don’t have every subject but they post a new article every few days and are slowly building a comprehensive resources. WARNING: Five Book is a British website, meaning that some of the books are not available in the US. That said, international shipping isn’t as much of a hassle as people say it is. And yes, indie bookshops exist in other countries too. Fuck Amazon.

Reddit is where I go when Five Books can’t answer my question—actually it’s the place I go when I’m looking for recommendations for anything: books, horror movies, rolling papers. Reddit is a great place for non-experts to share their recommendations. While Reddit can’t answer every question, there are enough subreddits that if you are looking for something, you’ll find it. I recommend typing into Google, “[Insert type of book or genre] Reddit” before you look anywhere else.

I don’t follow the major news sources’ “TOP 10 BOOKS OF THE YEAR!” lists because A) they are usually snobbish in regards to genre i.e. they rarely choose sci-fi, horror, or romance novels B) they usually choose the books which come from major publishers and have massive ad campaigns and C) they usually choose the safest books and rarely choose the books that people are actually talking about. I also don’t buy books because they win prizes (for example, I read The Nickel Boys, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and didn’t love it and I’m not the only person I know who has this opinion). I do have a bias for smaller presses because I like reading books that were almost lost to the sands of time and that not many people know about. Also: smaller presses tend to publish more experimental literature, which is the literature that moves art forward instead of stagnating it. Favorite Smaller Publishers: NYRB Classics, Archipelago Books, New Directions, Verso, and Graywolf Press.

I never look at bestseller lists because I believe sales has nothing to do with quality. I also don’t read book reviews since they are rarely critical enough for me to take them seriously.

As a former indie bookstore employee (SAVOY BOOKSHOP, REPRESENT!), I can personally attest to the intelligence of most indie bookstore employees. Barnes and Nobles are department stores and indie bookstores are boutiques. I’m not saying that B&N employees have bad taste, but more often than not they recommend the bestsellers. Indie bookstores hire the best readers and since their stores are usually smaller their employees usually know what’s in stock without looking it up.

If you’re in an indie bookstore, always look for the staff recommendations. If they don’t have a staff recs section or shelf talkers (those little slips of paper with a blurb written on it), ask an employee what they recommend. If they can’t think of something of the top of their heads, then they’ll use their research skills to find something or will phone a friend or fellow employee.

That said, indie bookstore employees are not magicians. To quote George Orwell from his essay “Bookshop Memories”: “Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an invalid’ (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.” I promise you this is so true. Check out Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell for more examples. Also check out my future post about me working at two different bookstores.

Luckily I have friends who are obsessive about sports, politics, science, and history and are more than happy to give me a no bullshit recommendation. Dating/Friendship Tip: If you want to strengthen your relationships, ask your partner/friend what their favorite book is. If they say they don’t have one or that they haven’t read since high school, walk away immediately and never look back—or plan a date to go to a used/indie bookstore.

To Quote The Filth Elder, John Waters: “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t let them explore you until they’ve explored the secret universes of books. Don’t let them connect with you until they’ve walked between the lines on the pages. Books are cool, if you have to withhold yourself from someone for a bit in order for them to realize this then do so.” Here’s an article about John Water’s dating advice.

The third and final place I look is, well, inside myself. Before the COVID CLUSTERFUCK, I went to thrift stores and used bookstores on a regular basis. Any book that seemed interesting, I’d add to my pile since they were only like two or three dollars. When I was living in Westerly, Rhode Island, paperbacks were fifty cents and hardcovers were a dollar at the local thrift shop. The thrift stores around me in suburban New Jersey are a bit more expensive and have worse selections, but they are still reliable. If you want recommendations as to where to buy books in Boston and Cambridge, send me a message through the Contact tab. 

My voracious reading habits also introduce me to a lot of books. To quote two lines from Umberto Eco’s Postscript to The Name of the Rose: “Books are made only from other books and around other books” and “Books talk among themselves.” There are so many times I’m reading a book and I see the author talking about another book (often a book that seems more interesting than the one I’m reading) and immediately write the title down in my notebook. Some books have Works Consulted sections or bibliographies at the end of them and are good resources. 

There are lots of other great resources for finding books (podcasts, blogs like this one, and what not) but the methods described above are the ones that I’ve found most reliable. You can always read more. 

P.S. Here’s another great quote from Postscript to The Name of the Rose: “I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk. I believe a novel is always born of an idea like this: the rest is flesh that is added along the way.” I cannot tell you how many of my stories have been generated because of one little idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. 

P.P.S. “Take_it_Back_v2″ is an amazing Denzel Curry song and might be his best besides” Ultimate”, “Ricky”–You know what, just listen to all of TA13OO and then listen to UNLOCKED. Also Kenny Beat’s collab with Trash Talk Squalor is amazing.

P.P.P.S. What the American fascists/Trumpists did at the Capitol on Wednesday was a disgrace. The GOP needs to amputate their conspiracy theory wing and cauterize the fucking wound before they start killing people. It can happen here. America isn’t special.

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