14 votes

How do I learn and understand what kinds of books I like?

I'm an audio engineer, and I spend many hours a day consuming music. I could talk your ear off about genres, sub-genres, vocal styles, rhythms, and exactly what combinations of those I really enjoy. Technology, recommendations, and websites like everynoise.com have really enhanced how accurate my recommendations are, and I'm constantly consuming music that I absolutely love.

But when it comes to books... I'm so lost. Literature genres are like the equivalent of listing what instruments play on an album. Okay, this book is "sci-fi," so I know it's probably got futuristic technology, may be set in space, and could have some aliens. But that doesn't tell me anything about the writing style.

I know enough to know that I can't go just by good reviews on sites like amazon. How do I learn to quantify what I enjoy and curate my recommendations more effectively?

16 comments

  1. [7]
    Algernon_Asimov
    Link
    How did you work out what music you like? I'm guessing you started by listening to it. You heard a few songs and you decided you liked some of them but you didn't like others. You did a bit of...

    How did you work out what music you like? I'm guessing you started by listening to it. You heard a few songs and you decided you liked some of them but you didn't like others. You did a bit of research and learned what genres the songs you liked were in. Maybe a friend said "you gotta listen to this hip-hop song"; maybe a radio presenter said "here's the latest dance track"; maybe a review of an album said "this artist is an up-and-coming jazz performer". So, you learned which genres your preferred songs were in, and you tracked down more songs and performers in those genres. You found more music you liked and more music you didn't like so much. Then you did some more research and found out about sub-genres, and so on.

    But it all started with listening and judging for yourself.

    The process is pretty much the same with books. You have to read a few books to start learning what you like and what you don't like. Then you identify the genres of the books you like, and look for more books in those genres, and gradually learn more about sub-genres and authors, and so on.

    There is a BIG problem with this. It takes a lot longer to absorb a book than a song. A single song is an investment of only a few minutes. It might be longer for some pieces of music, but most music is in the 2-6 minutes range. On the other hand, a book can take at least 2-6 hours to absorb, and probably longer. It's a much bigger investment and a much more time-consuming process.

    But, ultimately, it is the same process. Read a few books to find out what you like and don't like. Learn more about the genres and authors of the books you like. Track down more books in those genres or by those authors. And so on.

    To take your example of "sci-fi" (which happens to be my speciality), this is a very broad genre. There are lots of sub-genres buried in there, from space opera to mundane, from cyberpunk to steampunk. The only way to find out what you like and don't like is to read some.

    As for writing style, isn't that equivalent to singing style? Within a genre of music, there are different singers and musicians who apply their own style to that genre. For example, describing something as "EDM" only tells you what instruments play on an album: computers, synthesisers, a vocalist. But Calvin Harris's style is different to Galantis' style, even though they're both working in the same genre.

    10 votes
    1. [6]
      tim
      Link Parent
      So say, for example, I loved Wool by Hugh Howey and The Martian by Andy Weir and do not like Foundation by Asimov, or the Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. Hugh Howey and Andy Weir have almost no other...

      So say, for example, I loved Wool by Hugh Howey and The Martian by Andy Weir and do not like Foundation by Asimov, or the Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. Hugh Howey and Andy Weir have almost no other works between them (Beacon 23 was good too though). Everything that comes well-recommended in the Sci-Fi genre tends toward the styles of the latter two authors, from what I can tell. Is there a good website with tags for novels that I can use to drill down on?

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        tymons
        Link Parent
        you can try goodreads. You can either create shelves for genres of books you've read and liked and go into recommendations, or browse (curated) lists and look for ones that include the books...

        you can try goodreads. You can either create shelves for genres of books you've read and liked and go into recommendations, or browse (curated) lists and look for ones that include the books you've liked and check out other books from the same list.

        7 votes
        1. tim
          Link Parent
          looks good, thanks! I've got all my books in there and i'll check out its recommendations

          looks good, thanks! I've got all my books in there and i'll check out its recommendations

          1 vote
      2. [3]
        Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        I don't know websites for books, sorry. I can't help with that. But there are two obvious similarities between the books you like, and two obvious contrasts with the books you don't like. Both...

        I don't know websites for books, sorry. I can't help with that.

        But there are two obvious similarities between the books you like, and two obvious contrasts with the books you don't like.

        Both 'Wool' and 'The Martian' could be described as hard science fiction. In hard science fiction, there is no breaking of the laws of known physics allowed (or only one minimal breakage, just to set up the "fiction" aspect of being science fiction). Hard science fiction has to work within the rules of known science as much as possible. This contrasts with the Foundation trilogy and the Space trilogy, which are not hard science fiction. Asimov's hyperspace and Lewis' intelligent life on Mars and Venus break the rules of known science.

        Both 'Wool' and 'The Martian' are modern, whereas the Foundation trilogy and the Space trilogy are from the period known as the Golden Age of Science fiction (from 1939 to about 1950).

        So, there are two things for you to look for:

        • Hard science fiction.

        • Modern science fiction.

        5 votes
        1. [2]
          tim
          Link Parent
          thanks!

          thanks!

          1. Amarok
            Link Parent
            I'll plug Greg Egan and Iain Banks for both of those genres. Egan deals mainly with consciousness and consequences of technological change, while Banks is more focused on what life would be like...

            I'll plug Greg Egan and Iain Banks for both of those genres. Egan deals mainly with consciousness and consequences of technological change, while Banks is more focused on what life would be like in a galactic-level civilization. If you fancy a long series, Banks' Culture works is one of the most celebrated of modern science fiction.

            Most authors have some short stories as well, so you don't have to plunge into a full sized novel to get a little taste of their particular styles.

            5 votes
  2. [5]
    cordyceptive
    Link
    Outside of reading more, you can’t really shortcut the process of finding styles that click. Good news is, it’s a ton of fun! You can try reading widely and seeing what sticks with you. You can...

    Outside of reading more, you can’t really shortcut the process of finding styles that click. Good news is, it’s a ton of fun!

    You can try reading widely and seeing what sticks with you. You can read book reviews and learn what excites your interest. You can read multiple books by the same author if you liked something they wrote. Finding one book leads quickly to others! I discovered my favorite novels through book reviews and by reading a book mentioned as inspiration in the author’s end notes for another, less-good book I read. It doesn’t hurt to start with the classics in whatever genre you’re looking for; they’re called classic because people liked them. Don’t sweat it if you don’t, though, life’s too short to read books you hate!

    3 votes
    1. [4]
      tim
      Link Parent
      Unfortunately it's not for me. The process of changing universes and starting a new book is... almost a chore, really. I know that I'll enjoy the book once I'm in it, but I dread starting a new...

      Good news is, it’s a ton of fun!

      Unfortunately it's not for me. The process of changing universes and starting a new book is... almost a chore, really. I know that I'll enjoy the book once I'm in it, but I dread starting a new one - which is why I try to find books that are in series. But of course when you get into the really big series, the ongoing ones with 10+ books, you also tend to find some really awful books that can turn you off of the whole series...

      It doesn’t hurt to start with the classics in whatever genre you’re looking for; they’re called classic because people liked them.

      My dislike of the "classics" is actually why I'm here. Trying to read the top all-time books and not enjoying most of them is what has gotten me frustrated.

      3 votes
      1. iiv
        Link Parent
        Which books have you tried that you didn't like?

        Which books have you tried that you didn't like?

        3 votes
      2. SunSpotter
        Link Parent
        I know that anyone who watches YouTube these days is probably getting hammered by channel promo's for Audible, but have you considered giving it a try? It's certainly not for everyone despite the...

        I know that anyone who watches YouTube these days is probably getting hammered by channel promo's for Audible, but have you considered giving it a try? It's certainly not for everyone despite the way it's advertised, but I know at least one person who was in a similar situation to you that benefited from using it.

        They were struggling to get back into reading, didn't know what they liked anymore and were just too exhausted or discouraged to really get out there. But they had a lot of time to themselves where they were able to use headphones at work and decided to give it a try. Personally, its not for me because I strongly prefer reading physical books so don't take this as me trying to do some kind of shameless advertising lol. I just think it's possible someone like you might benefit from it.

      3. Cirrus
        Link Parent
        What are some books you liked? Maybe someone can recommend you more based on that.

        What are some books you liked? Maybe someone can recommend you more based on that.

  3. Catt
    Link
    Try talking about books with your friends and family. A lot of my favourite authors, I found through recommendations from people who know me. And try breaking down what you like about stories and...

    Try talking about books with your friends and family. A lot of my favourite authors, I found through recommendations from people who know me. And try breaking down what you like about stories and authors you like. For example, I am all about characters and prose. So I can read a flowery descriptive book following one guy doing none. A friend of mine is all about kickass adventure, so they need action and feats of heroism and a happy ending. This makes going through reviews easier and more applicable to you specifically.

    1 vote
  4. bonfield
    Link
    In addition to GoodReads, you might also want to try LibraryThing, which I find a bit more personal and interesting. Here’s a link to A Short Overview of LibraryThing that should help you get...

    In addition to GoodReads, you might also want to try LibraryThing, which I find a bit more personal and interesting. Here’s a link to A Short Overview of LibraryThing that should help you get started.

    As a librarian, I also feel obligated to encourage you to visit your local public library and ask for a few recommendations. You might want to call first and ask for an appointment with a librarian who specializes in readers advisory. Nothing makes librarians happier than recommending books.

    1 vote
  5. a_wild_swarm_appears
    Link
    I think you just need to read more. Look for highly rated books in genres you're interested in and just start.

    I think you just need to read more. Look for highly rated books in genres you're interested in and just start.

  6. unknown user
    Link
    I have three sources of book "recommendations": (i) my books-to-buy list, (ii) stuff recommended in what I've already read or from other people, lectures, articles and whatnot, and (iii) the...

    There is a BIG problem with this. It takes a lot longer to absorb a book than a song. A single song is an investment of only a few minutes. It might be longer for some pieces of music, but most music is in the 2-6 minutes range. On the other hand, a book can take at least 2-6 hours to absorb, and probably longer. It's a much bigger investment and a much more time-consuming process.

    I have three sources of book "recommendations": (i) my books-to-buy list, (ii) stuff recommended in what I've already read or from other people, lectures, articles and whatnot, and (iii) the shelves of a local bookshop. Stuff from (ii) and (i) I always order online. I go to the bookshops when I want to "discover" new fiction. I look at books, first at their titles and authors. If I find an interesting combination, I look at the covers first: it tells a lot about the target audience and the "weight" of the book, is it a light read, is it a big essay, is it an intellectually "heavy" one like something by Sartre, Saramago, Calvino, etc. Then I browse the book, looking at the index first if available, then the incipit and a few random pages, to see if I'm intrigued at all. If I'm not, I leave the book, if I am, I read a few paragraphs, maybe look at the foreword a bit. If I'm still intrigued, I go and buy the book.

    This is like browsing a This is <artist-name> playlist on Spotify or listening to parts of random songs of an artist on YouTube to see if you like them. If you're intrigued, you may listen to an album or two, or even a collection of their all works.

    Online, I don't really discover books online, the major exception being the "What are you reading these days" threads here. I run them every two weeks, and there are lots of recommendations there all the time, with brief reviews. Sci-fi is quite big in all of these, apparently the folks here love it. Here is a list of links to all the threads up until now.