How do you choose a book?

May 19, 2022

“How do you choose a book?” Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda asked and answered recently, which naturally led me and other Mystic Writers, all avid readers, to have our say.

Dirda’s advice to consult book lists by famous writers works only occasionally for me; often I’m more puzzled than inspired. But I find any book list hard to ignore, except bestseller lists. The last straw for me was when Donald Trump Jr. became a “bestselling author” only after the GOP bought his book in bulk as Party favors for donors.

Good titles always catch my eye, as they did in a recent Vanity Fair reading list compiled by a menswear designer. Unfortunately for me, research revealed “Shoe Dog” to be about the founder of Nike, not a fashion-conscious canine enamored of footwear. But “My Mother Laughs,” in which the mother is a Holocaust survivor, sounds like a winner.

I choose most books by reading about them, usually in legacy media publications – New York Times, New Yorker, et al – that quaintly still employ book critics. The Washington Post’s “Book Club” by Ron Charles – with links to various reviews – is a rich resource, although it leaves me frustrated by lack of time to read all the appealing titles.

Actual book clubs can be great, especially if they introduce you to a different and engaging genre. But there are pitfalls, and you can waste precious reading time if you don’t choose your colleagues carefully. I’m more a fan of informal book clubs, like the one I share with my best pals Laurie and Melanie, who live in other states.

Our tastes can vary, but regarding the big issues we’re on the same page. My last selection was the short story “Recitatif,” in which author Toni Morrison never reveals which of her two protagonists is white and which one is black. We three will meet via Zoom to report our conclusions, and I can’t decide if I hope it’s unanimous – or hope it’s not.

Lastly, it should come as no surprise that a great way to choose a book is to visit a bookstore, like Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT or its sister shop, the Savoy in Westerly, RI. Staff picks are posted, and it’s an increasingly rare pleasure to be able to physically peruse books for sale.

By the way, if one captures your fancy, please buy it there – and help keep local bookstores in business.

Here are tips from other Mystic Writers:

Ruth Crocker: I have found some winners in those tiny libraries that people put along the roadsides — especially up in Maine when I visit friends near Portland. Also, librarians often pull books out of the stacks and display them when they are commemorating a theme or a holiday; some have turned out to be great reads that I never would have discovered otherwise. Finally, author interviews on NPR are a good source. I recently heard Katherine Schulz interviewed and immediately got her memoir, “Lost and Found.” To date, it is the best memoir I’ve ever read.

Susan Kietzman: One of the ways I choose books is by asking my reading friends what they’re reading. Word of mouth is one of my most trusted sources for reviews because people are usually honest. There’s no pressure to say they liked a bestseller when they didn’t. And they often introduce me to books and authors I might not find on my own. (Follow Susan on Goodreads for quick reviews of a diverse selection of books.)

Maura Casey: One of the unexpected benefits I gained from lockdown is that two neighbors and I began lending each other books. We would leave the books in mailboxes or on our stone walls in the first fearful months of the pandemic. It was a great comfort then. Life is busier now, but there’s no reason why a neighborhood  book swap can’t continue.

Jane Percy: I find that I can go shopping in my closet these days, instead of buying something new. Similarly, I often browse my own bookshelves for a long- forgotten treasure that merits a re-read. I’m an avid reader of the New York Times Book Review (after I’ve completed the Sunday crossword puzzle). And I dearly love NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She chooses the most interesting authors for her show. A recent interview with Amy Bloom, author of In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss,  was a thought-provoking discussion about euthanasia. This is a book I might have overlooked but hearing about it directly from the author made me want to add it to my library.

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1 Comment

  1. Agatha Maus

    1. By author: I would read a grocery list by Michael Connelly or Robert Crais (among others) and keeping up with favorite autors takes up most of my reading time. This goes for autobiographies as well as fiction.
    2. By subject: biographies of course depend on about whom; other non-fiction is usually based on the subject. Fiction as well, though it’s usually referred to as the genre.
    3. By recommendation: there are a few people who’s taste in reading material is much like mine. Every once in a while we get off the train and “discover” a new book or author which is forthwith recommended to and/or loaned to said friend.
    4. Good luck: once in a while, at a yard sale, book store, library, or The Book Barn something just says “Read me!”

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