Columns > Published on October 9th, 2012

Library Love: Reader’s Advisory - Expert Advice On What To Read Next

Let me tell you about my Buddhist friend, an avid reader. He reads multiple books concurrently, each occupying a specific time of his day. He paces himself, allowing only a few chapters at a time, savoring every literary morsel. Reading takes him on a jaunt into the writer’s world, where he dips his toes, splashes a little, and then returns to his life.

This concept is one hundred percent foreign to me. Reading is my slavery. I sit down with a new book, and suddenly it’s 3 a.m., I’m bleary-eyed, exhausted, my head hurts from hours of speed reading, and I still can’t stop. I once took a one-year hiatus from fiction because I couldn’t handle my loss of self-control. I came around eventually; I’m a little more careful now about when I crack a new spine, but little else has changed. I also still get the post-novel blues. You know - when it feels like all the color has been washed out of the world and normal life will never be as interesting as the place you visited in that last book? Those blues.

Reader’s Advisory has been around as long as there have been libraries and bookshops. It addresses the fundamental question of what to read next.

The only way to remedy the situation is to move on to new material. But how to choose? It’s an important decision - the right book improves your day; the wrong one is just work. Fortunately for us, librarians are all over this one.

The Best Service You Never Knew Existed

Reader’s Advisory has been around as long as there have been libraries and bookshops. It addresses the fundamental question of what to read next. Here’s how it works. At your local public library, track down a librarian in or near the fiction section and explain that you need help selecting something to read. Have an example of a book you really enjoyed, which will serve as a model. Depending on the librarian’s background, she may call in a colleague to help you, so you are assisted by the professional with the most expertise in that genre.

A variety of methods may be used at that point to lead you to your next book. Many public libraries subscribe to NoveList, a database created specifically to assist librarians with Reader’s Advisory. My friend Lynne Caldwell-Minnick at the Vancouver Community Library tells me that the Reader’s Advisory service at her library uses the Rule of Four, as espoused by Nancy Pearl. Pearl categorizes fiction and narrative non-fiction not by subject or topic, but by what she calls “experiential elements.” They are: story, characters, setting, and language. Every book contains all four elements, but one or two tend to be dominant. A book with story as its main element is a page-turner; one that features characters leaves you feeling like you got to know a real person; setting as a main element so strongly evokes the sense of place, it’s as if you have visited it yourself; and a book with language as its main element is a tour de force of craft – the action takes a backseat to the words. I find the Rule of Four to be an incredibly helpful way to decipher one’s taste. A librarian helping you with Reader’s Advisory will be able to recommend more titles with your preferred blend of these four elements.

In-person Reader’s Advisory is my top recommendation for finding your next book because it 1) gets you out of your house and 2) gets you into a library (the best place in the world!) Still, there are times when a DIY remedy is necessary. Here are some suggestions to get you going.

The Internet: Occasionally Useful

Start with the obvious: check and see if your local public library subscribes to NoveList or something similar, like Books and Authors. You might be able to access the database from your computer using your library barcode. No luck there? Make use of social media. The reader recommendations and tags in both LibraryThing and GoodReads have led me to many titles I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Finally, let’s not forget our commercial friend Amazon! I regularly troll this site for similar books after an excellent read, which I then borrow from my local library. A reading habit need not be expensive.

Book Lists: How to Stay Current in Every Literary Circle

Not all reading is purely for fun. If you’re like me, you can’t stand to walk into a conversation about a book everyone has read but you. Naturally, this means you’re going to have to read some less-than-amazing titles (Twilight), but it’s always worth it to have an informed opinion should the subject arise. A great method for developing your literary knowledge base is through book lists. I recommend the following:

The New York Times Best Sellers List. Required reading for book clubs and subways.
Indie Best Sellers. A slightly hipper version of the above. Suitable for coffee shops.
Literary Awards Lists. There’s an award for every genre. Go deep with everything from the Edgar to the Nebula.

Nancy Pearl, Revisited

Nancy Pearl is a hardworking woman. She served as executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at The Seattle Public Library until 2004, when she retired to spend more time doing what made her famous: recommending books. In addition to interviewing best-selling authors, writing columns about books and libraries, appearing on NPR’s Morning Edition, and modeling for the librarian action figure (the best action figure ever!), she is also the author of an excellent book series devoted to Reader’s Advisory. Book Lust, More Book Lust, Book Lust to Go, and Book Crush are all bibliographies of the narrative variety, in which Pearl divides the literary world into categories of her own design. A random sampling of chapters in the series includes: Academic Mysteries, Great Dogs in Fiction, Hiking the (Fill in the Blank) Trail, Kitchen-Sink Poetry, Peace Corps Memories, and Scotland: More than Haggis, Kilts, and Ian Rankin. Pearl introduces authors she finds important and devotes a few lines to each title she recommends. When you find yourself looking for that next great read, try one of Nancy Pearl’s suggestions. You’ll be glad you did.

About the author

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

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