Five More Extremely Unscientific Methods for Picking Your Next Book

Many of us want to read All the Books; most of us lack the time to do so. How, then, to select the next work to read? Way back in 2021 I suggested five possible methods to help make the decision slightly easier. Here are five more. I won’t claim that any of these are guaranteed to make you happy with your choice, but they do offer ways to sift through the vast mountains of possibilities.

One can deliberately select books by authors who for reason of native language, nation of origin, ethnicity or some other issue seem likely to have had barriers to publication in North America in English. For their book to be on the shelf at all, it must have evinced qualities that convinced a publisher to set aside systemic bias. It is an interesting question whether this method is evidence of a laudably open mind or of a tendency to exploit systemic injustice for personal pleasure.

Translated SF is an obvious example. Case in point: the DAW edition of Arkadi and Boris Strugatski’s Hard to Be a God, which focuses on the travails of a covert monitor living on a barbarous world. Russian SF at the height of the Cold War? Had to be something there to inspire DAW to publish it. Alas, that particular translation isn’t great, he said very diplomatically. It’s fortunate that better, more recent translations exist.

Sometimes I become irrationally inspirationally fixated on a specific background element of a story. This is something that I just cannot ignore (much like trying to carry on cooking after rubbing one’s eye after cutting up hot peppers). Such details are often worldbuilding elements … such as spaceship change in velocities (delta vees).

Back in the 1990s there weren’t many stories set in interplanetary space that featured plausible delta vees. I read a fair number of Paul Preuss works because they met that need. I still own a full set of his Venus Prime novels, detailing the adventures of a cyborg, code-named Sparta, as she survives various thrilling events, each one built around a seed of an Arthur C. Clarke short story.

Speaking of odd cognitive quirks—since 2020 or so I’ve had difficulty maintaining focus long enough to finish a long novel. I would be embarrassed to tell you how many interesting books are stuck on page one on my Kobo, abandoned when I saw the page count was five or six hundred. Novellas can be just the thing for the impatient read.

On a day when I didn’t feel up to reading a Winnowing Flame volume, Winnowing Flame author Jen Williams’ Seven Dead Sisters offered an enjoyable evening of horror: Would Alizon escape execution for murdering her father? And should she? Given the short page count, Seven Dead Sisters more than delivered the twists and dread revelations I wanted.

From time to time, I discover that I have been laboring under the false impression I’d already read something. Having discovered my misapprehension, it is natural to track down the book. After all, there must have been some reason I thought I had read it.

Case in point: Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, which I have owned since publication. Until 2021 I was absolutely convinced I had read it. Perhaps I had confused it with another series (Astreiant is a possibility) or perhaps I was misled by having read The Privilege of the Sword, a sequel. I finally spotted my error and read Kushner’s endearing tale. Moral: don’t piss off the town’s most deadly duelist.

Procrastination. Nothing inspires furious activity from me quite like a rapidly approaching deadline involving a completely unrelated matter. You don’t want to know how many Tor essays begin as me putting off another task. Books remain high on the list of valuable procrastination tools, no matter how many new methods (such as YouTube videos) enter the field.

There is no doubt my calculus mark in 1980 would have been greatly enhanced had I actually studied for the exam. What I actually did was sneak a copy of David Gerrold’s Space Skimmer (Foundation meets group therapy, more or less) and read that instead of studying! I still own my copy of Space Skimmer while the disappointing mark on my calculus test has been lost in the depths of time.



These are but five of the methods I use to pick my next read. No doubt many of you have methods every bit as noteworthy. Feel free to mention them in comments, which are, as ever, below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.



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