Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thoughts on Sources of Books to Read

I am always astounded at people who express a desire to read, but then indicate that they have trouble identifying what to read. There’s more than 50 books in my “to be read” pile and hundreds, if not thousands, of books I’d like to read.

So, this post is dedicated to our selection-challenged, wanna be readers.

The first, and I think most obvious, source of reading material is the literary (or Western) canon. A category that’s broad enough to include everyone from Shakespeare to Thorstein Veblen to Hemingway.

Wikipedia ( provides a nice overview of the Western canon. The link to Great Books of the Western World will keep you occupied for a month or two.

I try (but don’t always succeed) to read something by Dickens, Shakespeare, Wharton and Cather every year. There’s great pleasure in reading classic works apart from the demands of a college class. Tapping canonical authors can also lead to a powerful process of rediscovery.

The shortlists of notable literary prizes provide endless possibilities. There’s the Booker, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the PEN/Faulkner and the National Book Critics Circle. The shortlists generally feature a nice combination of the established – Carey, McEwan, Doctorow – and the unfamiliar – Karen Fisher, Sebastian Barry, Rene Steinke.

The shortlists are issued annually, which means you aren’t going to run out of material any time soon. Plus, a visit to a website dedicated to any of these prizes will generate more possibilities from past selections.

My first introduction to many of the authors that I now routinely read came from the shortlists. I also find that if you like an author’s book it’s worth exploring the author’s earlier material.

Of course, friends shouldn’t be ignored as a source of recommendations. Some will insist on The Kite Runner or The Time Traveler’s Wife, but others may steer you to Frederick Busch, Anthony Bourdain or such extraordinary books as Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest.

Anyone who is, or wants to be, a great reader must develop several friends whose judgment they value, someone whose recommendation is automatically accepted.

I scan book reviews daily, notably those published in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian. Reviews account for only a small percentage of the books that I choose to read, but sometimes serendipity intervenes. The Internet provides ready access to these resources.

One source that I eschew is the best-seller list. Most of the material here has no appeal to me. Nor have I ever been part of a book club, which could be a good starting point, but might become limiting after your critical selection skills are fully engaged.

1 comment:

  1. Did you see that Wiki now has a books section? They are slowly amassing a collection of public domain works. Should be exciting to see what kind of database they have by this time next year.