Tips for book recommendations

Nicoli asks:

Any tips, other than reading this blog, on how to find a good book recommendation? I want something like a netflix for books, but feel that system wouldn’t work given the significantly greater time and attention requirement for reading versus let’s say, watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

1. Go to the public library and browse both the new books section and the “Books Returned” carts.

2. Read the archives of this blog, filed under “Books.”

3. Weight Amazon reviews by the intelligence of the writer, and the length of the review, not by whether it is positive or negative.

4. Every year read some of the classics on Harold Bloom’s list in The Western Canon.

5. The very best books in categories you think you cannot stand (“gardening,” “basketball,” whatever) will be superb.  It is not hard to find out what they are.


"1. Go to the public library and browse both the new books section and the “Books Returned” carts."

This is a good way to maximize your Nora Roberts and James Patterson reading.

That mad me chuckle. Thanks for that.

Incidentally, here is a link to a page where someone lists The Western Canon:

Not surprisingly, it's a very long list.

If you input your library, it comes up with recommendations based on what other people own who own the same books you do.

There's another service, called Bookswim, that I used for a long time. They'll recommend books based on your selections, and you can pick how many you want at a time... just like Netflix. Cheap, too.

Check out Goodreads! It's a social networking website for books and I use it to track all the books I have read and want to read. Users also give reviews of books after they've read them. I find relevant books by searching through my friends' lists and reviews. Find it at

I have also recently discovered Goodreads.

You forgot one critical piece of advice you take to heart, Tyler: if a publisher gives you a pre-release copy of a book for free, make sure NOT to mention the freebie when you post an early review of it.

Are you implying a $5 equivalent affects a book review?

I'm excited when a package comes to my door because I can't even remember what I ordered. It's like Christmas.

An advance copy is usually of a product soon to retail for $20, plus the fact that it's a gift and something other people don't have access to at the time...

I find that if the author of a new book gets more than one interview on an NPR show, that's a sign to stay away. For example, I found "On Chesil Beach" to be so immediately forgettable that I accidentally read it twice before it's vacancy impressed itself in my mind.

I always check the reviews on Goodreads before picking up most books I read. I am also a librarian so I read a lot of review publications for collection development purposes - but for personal reading Goodreads is fantastic because it gives a very good consesus review.

What is the best Eastern equivalent to Bloom's Western Canon? There are a few lists out there but none seem exhaustive.

Put your favorite Amazon reviewers into your RSS feed. Oh, and read only books by recent immigrants who publish in strip malls. Bound to be cheaper, less pretentious and tasty.

A request/suggestion for your "Books" tag: You should subdivide into Non-Fiction and Fiction.

Books returned carts are a goldmine.

A highly under-appreciated cause of the demise of the bookstore: selection bias -- the best books do not stay in inventory for long unless they're brand new (in which case you're trusting your recommender's expertise rather than the crowd, time, and the central limit theorem).

The best place to find good books is on your colleagues shelves.

5. The very best books in categories you think you cannot stand (“gardening,” “basketball,” whatever) will be superb.

This made me chuckle. File absolutely everything by John McPhee under this heading. If you never thought you would be interested in the history of orange juice, the organization of the Swiss army, etc., McPhee will prove you wrong.

Yes, try out goodreads.
Or pick an author, read everything by that author. In doing so, you'll tumble down numerous rabbit holes of ancillary content.
Find a book critic with similar tastes.
Also, friends are still the greatest book recommenders available. Free, easy to use, constantly updating, eclectic and (usually) unbiased.

My favorite method is to smoke a bowl and wander a large used book store and buy anything that fascinates. On the down side my basement is now full.

Wow - old media really IS least to Marginal Revolution commenters.

Many, many periodicals run book reviews. The best ones are really good, and their reviewers and reviews are of far higher quality than what you will find on Amazon.

My personal favorites are the New York Times Sunday Book Review ( and The Economist (

I find the NYT's book reviews to be of greatly varying quality and utility, depending more on the reviewer than on the book under review. The most informative part of the review tends to be that the book was chosen for review in the first place, especially if it's not of the normal type or by an NYT staffer.

And while the median NYT review is better than the median Amazon review, I think the best Amazon reviews tend to be better and more readable, and it's easier to track the Amazon reviewer's reviews of similar (and different) works.

National Review has better book reviews than you'd expect.

I also find the NYT Book Review disappointing. I find many of the new books I read in the advertisements in The New York Review of Books. A little expensive to subscribe, but available in libraries. Their reviews are so much more than simply reviews.

You see, this is the problem. Book reviews are highly, fatally unreliable. There's an overall bias towards praise, even if it's just faint praise, of books that are mediocre or entirely negligible - most book pages editors want the reader to feel their plenty of good new books and most reviewers hope that when it's their turn the reviewer will be gentle with them too. The competitive set the reviewer usually has in their mind is all the other books out at the moment, rather than all the books you could be reading instead which (see Bloom) is a much higher bar. There's a powerful herd tendency; books that five star reviews in one place tend to get them across the board (then you pick up the thing and, free from the distorting effects of peer pressure, discover it's...some good or worse).

I think the best thing is to do as Tyler suggests with Amazon - note a few reviewers whose talent and integrity you really trust (I find there aren't very many!) and seek them out.

McPhee is great stuff.

Ask a librarian if you can take a look at a couple recent issues of Booklist (seldom have I seen this displayed on public library periodical shelves, though university libraries sometimes put it out). The reviews are voluminous, timely, well-written, classified by subject, and short. I have never picked up an issue without finding half a dozen books I felt compelled to hunt down.

Also, every time you visit your library, ask a different librarian for some recommendations. Be prepared to be interrogated about your reading habits and interests. When you find a librarian who routinely gives good recommendations, keep coming back to him. If he's any good at his job, after the first few interactions he will begin finding books he thinks you might like. Good librarians are like that.

Trust in the free market over government-run libraries in selecting your books, and you'll do fine. Whether you then request them from the library is up to you.

Amazon has a very strong profit incentive to figure out what books you will like, based on their incredibly extensive data about what other people have purchased. Use their algorithm and their data to your advantage - you don't even have to buy from them to do so, although you certainly could.

All you need to do is start rating books you own or have already read. Amazon even has a tool to get you started on this. Once you have rated 50 or 60, its recommendations will be decent. If you rate several hundred, as I have, you'll get great suggestions you definitely will like (along with the occasional strange or bestseller suggestions if you do also read that sort of thing). Make sure you rate books you dislike strongly, too. I don't have any insider knowledge of their algorithm, but I strongly suspect based on my results that negative ratings are probably more important in limiting the recommendations than positive ratings, and with the number of books available through Amazon, limiting the chaff is usually more difficult than finding the wheat.

Man, the people who parody hyperbolic glibertarians have really been stepping up their game around here lately. Bravo!

Sisyphus: when you say "start rating books" on Amazon, do you literally mean start writing reviews? Or is there a way to utilize their star rating system? Could you link to the tool you refer to? Thank you

Go to non-fiction writers you like and see what are the common bibliographic or footnote cited in their works.

Follow the vita and research of academics you like to find out their current research and writing and download it or a working paper of it.

An informed librarian, believe it or not, if he/she knows your interest, can also be a guide. Specialized academic librarians with a degree in your field are also useful and aware of what is new or difficult to get but good.

Interlibrary loans, even across states, from specialized libraries in arcane topics is a hoot. For example, an out of print classic cookbook on Portuguese cooking, a book on Victorian woodwork and stencil designs, are all available through interlibrary loans. If you know of a specialized library, and if they participate in interlibrary loans, you can peruse their electronic card catalog to find the items above.

Easy Way : Read Marginal Revolution and know about a good book coming :-)

Read the columns of your favorite writer on the blog or magazine. If the writer is persistent in the quality, then go for the book recommended by him/her.

My wishlist is here:-

sorry, but i think NYT book review sucks -- everything is reviewed according to whether it's "a valuable contribution to the study of X" rather than whether you might actually want to read it if you don't live and breathe X. also, too many reviewers trying to prove they're smarter than the authors. by contrast, e.g., if EW says it's one of the best nonfiction of the year, it's worth almost anyone's time.

Read for recommendations.

Another way to find a list of good reading is to google search the sylabii of various colleges to find out what lit classes are reading, econ classes, etc.

(1) Use Arts and Letters Daily for posting and links to book reviews including my favorite, the London Review of Books.

(2) Find an interesting book reviewer. Marginal Revolution introduced me to Adam Phillips (sp?) who writes for LRB and his reviews are collected in the wonderful book Promises, Promises. I also like Slavoj Zizek's book reviews (as I don my gay flak-jacket) in LRB.

Favorite bloggers and bookish friends provide most book suggestions --,,,,

I pick a subject I'm interested in, go to Wikipedia and scroll down to the bottom for the source material. Works for me. Also, more professors, like Tyler, are posting the syllabi for some of their classes. That's another good source.

1) Five Books - search for a topic, find an expert's top 5 book recommendations, e.g. Tyler and co. could probably contribute some good interviews.

2) If you're interested in any subject, the 'canon' can usually be determined from the Amazon bestellers, by combining sales rank, number of reviews, review score, and how many editions it has gone through -

#3 is important for judging criticism generally. Your not looking for whether the critic liked it or not, but rather if what they have to say piques your curiosity, particularly if some description echos your own interests, like Tyler's review for "Persistence of Poverty", or just makes you smile, like ebert's review of buba-hotep "The movie doesn't exactly work, but sometimes when a car won't start, it's still fun to look at the little honey gleaming in the driveway".

Hats off to David Wright above for saluting John McPhee - even down to his specific inclusion of McPhee's book Oranges, he has the good sense to virtually replicate my own take on one of the postwar gold standards in longform magazine narrative writing.

Nobody mentioned that 109-year old booklover's journal of record from across the pond, The Times Literary Supplement, which doth bestride the narrow world of learning like a colossus. A couple of years after I in late 1984 cracked up a certain Marginally Revolutionary young economist and his pal Randy with my cassette-inspired Lu Mises imitation while running the Mercer Street storefront at Laissez-Faire Books near NYU, I published in National Review an essay in which I saluted the literary journalism of London as an alternative to The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, &c.

And if you want to see exactly what an intellectual monthly is supposed to look like, next time you're in a good academic library, spend an hour or twelve inhaling old volumes of Encounter, especially in its first fifteen or so years, 1953-1968 - or go right now to eBay and have a look at a few of the covers there displayed.

As for the TLS, which is a sort of evolved weekly descendant of the great Eleventh Edition (1911) of the Encyclopædia Britannica, it gives its polymath readers fifty reasons yearly to peek anew - and Tyler, too, as, e.g., in his must-read review from last February of Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester:

Mencken weighed in here, too:

Update: I am on the TLS letters page for April 8:

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