Sam Seitz

I’m certainly not the most prodigious reader, but I suspect that I read significantly more books than the typical American. The more I read, the more I realize that reading only begets more reading. This is because each book introduces new ideas and topics that themselves need to be explored, thus necessitating the purchase of even more books. But this raises an important question: How does one go about finding quality books? Frankly, I’m not actually sure if there is one winning strategy, but I think I’ve discovered several useful techniques. It’s worth noting, however, that I read almost exclusively non-fiction social science and history books, so I’m not sure my approach would translate well to other genres. Nevertheless, here is my advice; I think it’s general enough to be of at least some value to every reader.

1. Develop a network of like-minded readers and solicit their recommendations. This network can be both physical and electronic. So, for example, I get recommendations from friends and professors, but I also follow several people online who read and review voluminous quantity of books that generally fall within my areas of interest. Of course, this is relatively easy for me given that I am ensconced within academia. However, it’s honestly not that hard to discover like-minded readers. Perhaps the easiest approach is to simply make a Goodreads account and then look at the people who have read/reviewed books that you have enjoyed. Presumably, these people have roughly similar interests. So, by following them and tracking what they read, you can quite easily discover a great number of books that might be of interest to you.

2. Regularly check websites that review and highlight books. There is no shortage of these websites, but New Books Network, The London Review of Books, and The New York Review of Books are always excellent places to start. This approach tends to be more variable in yield, as many of the books listed will fall outside your typical reading areas. However, this is not necessarily a negative, as it prevents you from becoming pigeonholed and missing potentially interesting volumes.

3. Read publishers’ catalogs. Surprisingly, few people I know actually do this, but I’ve found it to be an excellent way to stay on top of new releases. I, of course, mainly focus on the academic publishers (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, Norton, Basic Books, Routledge, etc.), but there are obviously many other publishers out there that may be of greater interest to you. Relatedly, make sure to see if a book you enjoyed is part of a series (yes, book series are not unique to fiction). History books are frequently produced in series (Penguin, in particular, has some excellent ones), but there are also some excellent political science and economics collections that are worth checking out as well.

4. Visit physical bookstores, especially if they sell used books. While buying a book from a brick and mortar shop is generally pricier than going with Amazon, perusing the shelves can be a great way to discover texts you otherwise would have never found. Even if you don’t feel comfortable paying a premium for these books, you can always write them down and purchase them online at some later date. Moreover, at least with used bookstores, a lot of the books can actually be real steals.

5. Always have a few unread books lying around. That way, even if you somehow can’t find any new books that interest you, you have something to read.

P.S. When looking at reviews, don’t pay attention to the average number of stars. People tend to conform to others’ assessments, and, quite frankly, most reviews rate books too highly. If you read the kind of books I do, you are also probably atypical in your preferences. Therefore, what the average reader thinks of a book you are considering is of little importance. What you should do is read a few of the 5-star reviews and a few of the 1 or 2-star reviews. Then, weigh the arguments, see if they apply to you, and make your choice.