Apropos of this post on influential books, a reader e-mailed me to ask how to find interesting books. My answer: look for books that are important to people who are smart, and ideally smarter than you. That’s one reason I like the “top ten influential books” meme that’s been going around: it introduced a lot of books I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Other (obvious to me) places: The New Yorker; professors or highly literate friends; the better book/arts blogs, like About Last Night; and author interviews, in which novelists or other writers mention important/influential books. The last one is probably among the most useful because writers, in order to work effectively, have to read a lot. As a result, the top few books of the many thousands they’ve read are probably better than the top few of the dozens or hundreds random friends have read.
The problem with books is that you can’t really say whether they’re right for you until you read them, and what’s right for you depends on how much you already know about the subject, taste, what else you’ve read, development, background, and more. So book recommendations are by their nature hard, especially for someone like you, who I (probably) don’t know. I have a few go-to recommendations that many people seem to like—Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind; Alain de Botton’s On Love; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem; and Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy are high on that list.
This discussion reminds me of So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, which discusses how hard the sifting process becomes as more books pile up while time to read remains constant. One can view this as depressing, because you’ll never get to read everything worth reading (unless, apparently, you’re Harold Bloom), or freeing, because you can simply read whatever comes to hand and abandon it at will.