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How do you choose a book to read?

May 30th, 2014, By Jeannie Skinner
Young woman browsing shelves - State Library of Victoria on Flickr. Some rights reserved

As readers, let’s consider the strategies we use to successfully choose what to read, and how we can teach and promote these strategies to help students find and choose titles they may enjoy.

Last term I set off for a beach holiday but my timing coincided with the impending arrival of tropical cyclone Lusi, so I did what any reader would do, and made sure I was well stocked up with reading material. Being a library adviser, having a bookseller husband, and requesting books online from libraries or purchasing, books arrive in my orbit fairly steadily – some chosen and some supplied so I realised with surprise that I don’t very often need to browse along library shelves to find something to read. Visiting a large city library and selecting a “mini-library” for myself from rows and rows of books on shelves made me think about the actual mechanics of browsing – like reading itself, a complex and invisible mental process. It occurred to me how challenging it would be to find a book I wanted if I weren’t a reader already.

What was I looking for? How was I doing it? What were my strategies? How do you find / choose what to read?

When browsing, I scanned along the shelves and looked for:

  • Some of my favourite authors in case there were some titles there I hadn’t read yet
  • Titles I’d heard about, read reviews of, or that friends have mentioned to me
  • Authors I want to read, and some that I feel I ought to have read!
  • Titles that appealed and, where visible, book covers that appealed – publishers are very good at branding covers to connect with potential readers
  • Books that looked new, ie up to date, and also books in good condition – I don’t fancy a book where some previous borrower has used a slice of bacon as a bookmark, as has gone down in librarian lore.

As well as the shelves I looked on the “recently returned” book trolley.

When I took a book from the shelf, I would then read the jacket blurb for a plot synopsis and the back cover – being aware of publisher puffery but looking for “read alike” comments or recommendations from sources I respect. I might read the first page or the information about the author from the jacket. If I were carrying a smartphone I could use a QR code, if available, to visit the author’s website or check out GoodReads for reviews.

To be honest, if the book had tiny print, I put it back on the shelf – oh, how I took perfect eyesight for granted when I was younger! Students look at the size of print too, for the same ease-of-reading reason, though not age-related. It is one of the advantages of e-books that the print size can be made to suit, and the number of pages is not such a determining factor in book selection. However, book design is also an important aspect of the appeal of print books.

In the library I visited, as well as A – Z fiction, there was also some fiction arranged by genre. This was interesting for me in light of recent discussions with schools about arranging their fiction collections this way. For my browsing it helped narrow my choices – walking past the westerns, romances, horror and science fiction, and looking at other areas I was more interested in.

I liked the “shelf talkers” – labels with brief author recommendations by named staff. They drew my attention to authors I might otherwise not have considered, and the most helpful were the ones that said things like, “if you like books by… you’ll enjoy this”, giving a real point of reference and selection shortcut.

It certainly made it easier knowing I could take a whole armful of books – Auckland Libraries allow 35 – and so there were some I could borrow just on the off-chance. This is the absolute rationale to allow very generous borrowing limits in school libraries, to encourage borrowing that is varied, plentiful and allows for risking the unknown.

Strategies that helped me find a good book

What the library did:

  • Had a varied and appealing collection in good condition with book covers displayed face-out
  • Arranged fiction by genre as well as alphabetically with genre spine labels
  • Had shelf talkers with librarian recommendations
  • Allowed generous borrowing
  • Had helpful librarians who were readers

What I did:

  • Knew my own reading preferences, requirements and history
  • considered recommendations from family, friends, colleagues and drew on information from reviews or booktalks
  • Knew about authors – their style or themes and had a mental “to-read” list. Stephen Layne tells his students to keep a written list of “Someday books” or “Books to consider”
  • Allowed myself time to browse and explore without pressure.

This sort of self-reflection could help us to be aware of what students are learning to do to find their “just right books”.

  • What are the strategies you use to choose what to read?
  • When do we actively teach students how to browse? Who models to students how to choose what to read?
  • How do we browse for e-books?
  • What we can do in libraries to support successful browsing / book selection?

Further information

Helping students choose books for reading pleasure

Arranging library fiction by genre

School staff as readers

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