Even if you read 100 books in a year—and you can!—that’s still only a tiny fraction of what’s being published. And if you’ve been in a reading rut, it can be hard to know where to start. I know a bit about recommending books — I host a literary podcast called The Maris Review, and I used to be the editorial director for Book of the Month, so I have a front-and-center seat to preview what’s up and coming in the book world. But you don’t need to be an industry professional to find great books, I promise.
The key is to find the right book for you—the book with that unquantifiable factor that in some way excites you, whether it’s a smart new hardcover by a favorite reporter or a dog-eared copy of a Jacqueline Susann novel you found on the sidewalk. Really, the point is to stay in love with books — that’s what will keep you reading in the post–book report era of your life.
Get on Goodreads
The design may be old and clunky, and I wish the site were better moderated, but Goodreads is the most useful book app available right now. I use its list functionality as a kind of diary to keep track of all the books I’ve read and the ones I want to read. You can note which books you want to read and are currently reading and rate the books you’ve already read.
But more importantly, Goodreads has a social function. I can use it to keep track of what my friends are reading and how they rated the books they’ve read. (See my list of books I’m excited about for 2020.) My friend Tobias reads more widely and rapidly than anyone else I know, so I look at his feed when I want to see which indie press gems I may have missed. My friend Emily specializes in fantasy and horror, so I’ll go to her page if I’m in the mood for something scary.
Don’t worry if you don’t have many Goodreads friends or if they’re not into the same things as you are. You can also follow users informally, without being “friends.” Follow an author you admire — anyone from Laurie Halse Anderson to Celeste Ng — and see what they’re reading. One of my favorite Goodreads users is writer and editor Roxane Gay, who somehow finds the time to write thoughtful reviews of just about everything she reads despite seemingly being the busiest woman on the planet. And yes, you can also follow librarians on Goodreads.
Have an IRL conversation at your local bookstore or library
If you haven’t visited your local public library since you were trying to win a grade school reading challenge, it’s time to get a new library card. At the risk of stating the obvious: These are buildings full of free books for you to take whenever you want. The shelves of new books at your local library are a great place to start if you’re stumped, and librarians usually love the chance to recommend books. (The New York Public Library even offers personalized book recommendations via Twitter every Friday.)
The same goes for bookstore clerks, who will be thrilled to recommend books to you based specifically on your tastes. Tell them what you’ve recently read and liked (and didn’t like), and let them suggest a few titles. Talking to other patrons is also helpful, especially in the interest of building a community with mutual interests. Don’t forget about used bookstores, which will have idiosyncratic and sometimes thoughtfully curated selections — including out-of-print gems you won’t find anywhere else.
You may not have been in a brick-and-mortar bookstore in a while, but here’s why you should: I always look at the staff picks section; even in a Barnes & Noble, I always look for the Discover Great New Writers shelf. I also read shelf talkers—those little cards on the shelves that the employees use to recommend their favorites—to find books that might have slipped under my radar. For me, a passionate endorsement from an employee is the most convincing sales tool. It was from a glowing shelf talker at Powell’s during a 2016 trip to Portland, Oregon, that I discovered the transgressive voice of Jen Beagin—I highly recommend both of her novels.
Follow a book club virtually
Of course, there’s always the old-fashioned IRL book group — but you and your friends might have this same issue about picking what to read next unless you agree on a solid theme (or have some really opinionated members). That’s where virtual book clubs can be a big help.
Everyone knows about the influential book clubs of Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, but they’re far from the only clubs in town. If you’re looking for a well-curated selection of books that’s more specifically tailored, try Belletrist, the book club run by Emma Roberts. She tends to focus on literary fiction with a feminist bent. I also love Well-Read Black Girl, a club run by Glory Edim that features new books by black authors every month. BuzzFeed Book Club has fun, accessible monthly literary selections. And the newest club that’s blowing up is Noname’s Book Club, an eponymous effort by the rapper and poet that features her monthly pick by a writer of color, as well as one from artists like Earl Sweatshirt and Kehlani.
Follow a particular (small) publisher
Corporate publishers are often too generalist to have distinct voices and points of view. Smaller presses are likely to have lists that share a cohesive sensibility, perhaps because they publish only a small number of books per year. For instance, I know I’ll love anything published by Graywolf, Tin House, Coffee House Press, or Catapult, because they’re able to take risks that major publishers won’t, so they break new ground in storytelling quite often. This strategy also works well for publishers that have specific imprints for genre fiction, like sci-fi and romance.
Scour the backlist
One of the best feelings is to read a book by an author you’re unfamiliar with and then realize they have an entire back catalog to get lost in. A few years ago, my friend Maud told me that her favorite novel of all time is The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, whom I’d always meant to read. I loved that book so much that I’m working my way through the rest of her novels.
This leads me to an important point: You don’t have to read the latest, newest, hottest thing. Any book you haven’t read is new to you. There’s no reason to be concerned about what everyone else is talking about — with any luck, you’re too busy reading to care anyway.