Mostly returned books

I have thought about this question for at least twenty years, Elisa Gabbert spells it out (NYT):

My favorite spot in my local library — the central branch in Denver — is not the nook for new releases; not the holds room, where one or two titles are usually waiting for me; not the little used-book shop, full of cheap classics for sale; and not the fiction stacks on the second floor, though I visit all those areas frequently. It’s a shelf near the Borrower Services desk bearing a laminated sign that reads RECENTLY RETURNED.

This shelf houses a smallish selection of maybe 40 to 60 books — about the number you might see on a table in the front of a bookstore, where the titles have earned a position of prominence by way of being new or important or best sellers or staff favorites. The books on the recently returned shelf, though, haven’t been recommended by anyone at all. They simply limit my choices by presenting a near-random cross section of all circulating parts of the library: art books and manga and knitting manuals next to self-help and philosophy and thrillers, the very popular mixed up with the very obscure. Looking at them is the readerly equivalent of gazing into the fridge, hungry but not sure what you’re hungry for.

Is it better to spend time, at the margin, pawing through the “recently returned” cart, or the “New Arrivals” section or for that matter just the regular shelves?  How about the books simply left on tables and abandoned?

The big advantage of the books on the carts is that they usually are not bestsellers.  For bestsellers there is a waiting list, and they are held for another patron, never making their way to the cart.  I say go for the carts.


JaVale McGee shops at the bookstore around the corner from the strand.

What is popular depends on the country. In Germany I've read that "self-help" books are popular.

In Greece, nobody reads and the national library is a disgrace, last I checked 20 years ago. In the Philippines, lots of people read, lots of used bookstores, but as I've said before here the books are sold "en masse" by the ton, all priced the same, and you'll find such classics as "State of Ohio Codes & Statutes 1995", "Window 2000 Bible", as well as gems (I found, looking at it now, hardback, "A Pocket Guide to The Chess Openings" by R.C. Griffith and H. Golombek, (c) 1958 revised ed, from the 1949 ed., about the size of your hand, for about the same price. I guess the book store owners know their $5 a day employees are too dumb to cull the books and separate the wheat from the chaff, so they just instruct them to stock all the books, but I don't see why I keep seeing the same unsaleable junk every month; I'm guessing once every six months or so some Filipino literature major must go through the branch offices and cull the junk books from the shelves. BTW the overpriced "National Bookstore" here, which only sells shrink-wrapped books that you cannot open and browse (I rarely buy a book I cannot browse), now sells mostly school and office supplies and very few books; they discarded most of their chess books a year ago.

Bonus trivia: Harry Golombek OBE (1 March 1911 – 7 January 1995), was a British chess grandmaster, chess arbiter, chess author, and wartime codebreaker. Lots of Bletchley Park codebreakers were chess masters; GM Roger Penrose comes to mind.

I find myself checking out the New Arrivals every time I visit the library. You still get a solid cross-section of the library's selection, but all the books are new and up-to-date.

There is a certain nice feeling of not only the book being new physically, but also in content.

I too am a fan of the recent returns cart but I have never felt that it was a "near random" selection. All the books on that cart are there because some reader recently chose them. In my experience this significantly enhances the quality and relevance of the titles on that cart. I know that I am far more likely to find an interesting book from the limited selection on that cart than from browsing a similar number of titles on any other shelf in the library.

My local used book shop has a shelf for "New" books which includes both recent releases and new to the store. I also am a fan of perusing the staff recommendations at the library and stores and then asking specific staff members for other books they might recommend unconstrained by need to sell or general popularity.

I’ve only recently started reading literature and fiction. Any recommendations for the guy who’s read almost nothing?

Graham Greene's novels from the 50s and 60s will take you around the world and strike a nice balance between entertainment and literary value

I went with the portable Graham Greene, not knowing what else to look for. Thanks for the recomendation

Graham Greene is excellent but subtle. Your nym MOFO indicates you're more of a man of action. I suggest you don't read Greene but watch Netflix "Narcos". But, if you must read Greene, start with The Power and The Glory. Note subtle stuff like the missing girl's notebook describing the Don Pacifico affair (which occurred in Greece, and think about why this would hardly be relevant in anticlerical, revolutionary 1920s Mexico) and the implication of the whiskey priest finding it torn pages from it (I won't give a spoiler, but likely the girl was...)
Or you, MOFO, can just watch Netflix and get more of an adrenaline rush...just saying bro.

Bonus trivia: the nighttime mosquitoes and the jaundiced,shuffling peasants from Power and Glory is so accurate for Mexico! They don't call it the Mosquito Coast for nothing.

I'm not up on his essays, but novels I fondly recall were The Comedians (about the savage regime in Haiti), End of the Affair, Heart of the Matter, Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, Monsignor Quixote and of course The Power and the Glory.

I started out on Greene with The Honorary Consul and remember that one most fondly. It's similar to a great novel called Under the Volcano but much more accessible. Errol Flynn, my favorite Hollywood alcoholic, would have been perfect for a movie version.


If you like that grungy old Mexico stuff look up the circa-1930 novels of the mysterious B Traven

Thanks, ill check into it.

Thomas Hardy, William Trevor, John Fowles, all British.

Thanks, ive enjoyed other British authors ive read (Orwell, Huxley and Chesterton)

I like it when libraries hang the newspapers on those big old wooden poles and racks, so that's where I'd head. Sad to say, at some of our area libraries the most popular place to sit is where some homeless guys aren't hanging out.

I second going for the carts, unless Gabbert's article, like the "irresponsible" geotaggers on Instagram, creates a new equilibrium where everyone is going for the carts

the holds room, where one or two titles are usually waiting for me;

What's up with that? A book is sitting on a shelf, unable to be read, because somebody that's watching Seinfeld re-runs on television can't take the time to waddle down to the library to pick it up? Grocery stores are much like libraries except the box of Rice Krispies that's checked out doesn't have to be returned. But there's no "hold shelf" for Rice Krispies. Generally, a book is only read by one person at a time anyway. Why should there even be a "hold shelf"? It makes sense if the book has been requested from another library but that's not the same thing.

I, too, would go for the carts, mainly because it provides a limited choice. Having to choose from the stacks would be overwhelming. (The reality is I pick my books up at the mobile library, so rarely see them physically beforehand, and tend to make my selections based on what other people are tweeting.)

There's a book I absolutely love, "Algorithms to live by", which talks about how principles that are obvious in computer science pop up in real life.

Libraries are a really cool example because there's a lot of sorting, fetching, storing, looking up, etc. etc. etc. going on inside of them -- all things a computer does.

What you're looking at in computer science terms, is a cache full of recently accessed items.

I say go for the carts of recently accessed books -- you're basically letting other people pick books for you. Some of those people will have tastes like yours, some different, but all of them are going to be making an effort to filter out bad books.

'But there's no "hold shelf" for Rice Krispies.'

Sure there is, at least if you were shopping at the Giant at Pickett Shopping Center - you just asked them to keep something in the manager's office next to the cash registers, and they would happily do so.

Of course, that Giant is gone, both specifically and as a local chain, but at least it is not outlandish, as it used to happen often enough. For example, when there were only one or two items left on the shelve.

Well, that comment ended up oddly placed - it was intended as a reply to chuck martel.

Is there a lesson about revealed preference in here?

I've never understood the concept of browsing for a book at the library. If you don't know, do you choose based on subject area and then just pick a title that strikes your fancy? Or because you like the cover? Then the next step of sampling the book comes. This seems like it could be rather time consuming. Who but retired people have time for that? I always know exactly what I want to get. If I didn't, I can imagine just leaving without checking anything out.

So for those who browse at the library (or even the bookstore), what is your method?

"I've never understood the concept of browsing for a book at the library."

I find this confusion baffling. I thought everyone did it.

For me, I generally know what I'm in the mood for--epic fantasy, high seas adventure, a deep analysis of some obscure scientific topic, etc. I go to the sections that would most likely have those books, and look around until one strikes my fancy. I then read a page or two to see if I can stand the author's writing style. If I can, I get it. Libraries are free, and books are relatively cheap, so if I'm wrong the losses are minimal. And the benefit of a more lose criteria is that I sometimes find things that are of tremendous value that I wouldn't have found with a more rigorous approach. "Life History of a Fossil" is a fantastic introduction to taphonomy, which I found because I was browsing the "Science" section of a used book store and thought "That's a fun title." I was introduced to one of my favorite series of books by my sister enjoying the first line and deciding that it was worth $5.

I get the idea. It's just that for every book worth reading, there are tons that are not. I just find browsing an incredibly inefficient way of filtering.

Authors found it worthwhile to write and publishers found it worthwhile to print and market. Striving for maximum efficiency in filtering, whatever that consists of, eliminates any chance of a serendipitous discovery. I feel sorry for you.

I appreciate your pity, but I'm doing just fine. My way of doing things has lead me to enjoy at least 2/3 of the books I read, which I think is pretty good. Knowing what I want when I go in doesn't mean the search for the book was easy nor does it take away the serendipity when I enjoy a book. You'll have to justify the claim that serendipity only comes from physical browsing.

Regarding your comment about someone finding the book worthwhile: there are many things people think are worthwhile that I see no value in. I should have made my comment above more subjective, but I just don't think a book being on the shelf is remotely close to being a good reason to pick it up.

speaking as a woman
the jeff tweedy book is real good

Life is short, read good books, hire competent people.

Better yet -

life is long
write good books
be kind to everybody

show gratitude (or at least do not show ingratitude) to those who have helped you live a long life
write the best books you can, or if you can't, be as interesting as you can in conversation with the humans and animals God has blessed you with as companions
be kind to everybody, protect those who need protecting and
encourage those who need encouraging and remember

faith is good
hope is good
charity is best

It is no small thing to be a friend to a creature who never had a friend in this world

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