7 Simple Ways to Find the Best Non-Fiction Books for You
Reading non-fiction is one of the best ways to learn something new. No matter what topic you’re interested in, there is sure to be plenty of books on it. I’ve written before about how to expand your non-fiction reading, but what if you’re happy with quantity and are seeking the exact book for your current level of knowledge, and the expertise you hope to gain?
First off, before you even think about selecting a book, you need to know what you’re after. Each book has a purpose and even books on the same topic can aim for different targets, so figure out what you want: A beginner’s explanation? Expert analysis? An answer to a specific question? Entertainment? All of the above…none of the above?
As soon as you figure out what you need you can begin your search. Due to the fact that there are literally hundreds of books available on any topic from mollusks to Jupiter, take note of the following tips to avoid wasting your time:
Appeal to Authority
Ask someone who knows. Surely, you know a friend or neighbor who are knowledgeable in your area of interest. Ask them, they’ll often be able to spout off names of half a dozen books on the topic, giving detailed descriptions of why one book is better than another. Asking an expert gives you an overview of the subject, but beware, expertise comes with its own biases.
Check Public Reviews
If you’re just starting to research a topic and you want a neophyte’s view, check Amazon or Goodreads reviews. Many reviewers there have very little knowledge or credibility when it comes to what they’re reviewing and you can use that to your advantage. Reading between the lines of their hot-takes can give you a gut-level sense of whether a book is right for you at that moment. I especially enjoy reading the negative reviews since those can be savage enough to be informative.
Get Automated Recommendations
Many companies, individuals, organizations have tried to perfect automated recommendations without success. The closest I’ve seen to useful, however, has been Goodreads. There automated suggestion lists tend to bring up books that are both very similar to the one you’re looking at, and also titles that are just slightly adjacent. It’s those parallel recommendations that tend to be the most useful to me because they’re the ones a straightforward search is least likely to uncover.
Find Interest Groups
Is a national or international organization focusing on your area of interest? Trick question, there almost always is. Contact them. They often have a list of recommended books as well as free materials they are happy to send you. No really, look around, there are some very specific interest groups out there. Just ask the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association!
Ask a Librarian!
As a corollary to asking someone you know: Ask someone you don’t know…Like a specialized librarian. Public librarians can usually direct you to the section your book will be, but unless they know a great deal about your topic they won’t have the background to instantly give you the exact title you need. Instead, call up the central library or local university library and ask for the section that represents your area of interest. There’s a good chance that they’ll have what you seek at-hand.
Go Hunting (citation hunting, that is!)
This is actually one of my favorite ways to expand my knowledge about a topic. I read bibliographies for fun! (I’m truly a librarian) The thing is, once you have a book, even if it’s not very good, its bibliography can lead you to many other options. And if you’re just starting on a topic, you can even do this with kid’s books. Looking through several bibliographies will also give you a sense of the most common authors and titles in the field because nearly everyone will mention them. Takes notes and then go after those books and articles.
Here’s an easy way to get recommendations: Find a forum on the web relating to your topic and start a thread explaining your quandary and level of interest and that you are looking for some books to read on the topic. People will be happy to offer advice, and you don’t even have to get up from your desk to find what you need! (I would recommend looking for the relevant subreddit, but in my experience, those can be hit-or-miss)
There we go! Now you’re armed with a few methods of identifying non-fiction books for your knowledge level and sensibility. And when it comes to the books themselves (something I didn’t talk much about here), use your instincts; does the cover appeal to you? Does the table of contents excite you? When you flip through the book, do you get the urge to stop and read? If so, happy reading!