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The best books on libraries, recommended by richard ovenden.

Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden


Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden

Knowledge is power and nowhere has it been better preserved down the millennia than in libraries. Here Richard Ovenden , author of Burning the Books and the librarian in charge of Oxford University's Bodleian Libraries, talks us through books that shed light on what libraries are and what they do, and why they remain absolutely vital in our digital age.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

The best books on Libraries - The Care of Books: An Essay on the Development of Libraries and Their Fittings, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century by John Willis Clark

The Care of Books: An Essay on the Development of Libraries and Their Fittings, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century by John Willis Clark

The best books on Libraries - Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg

The best books on Libraries - The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The best books on Libraries - The Library: A World History by James Campbell & Will Pryce (photographer)

The Library: A World History by James Campbell & Will Pryce (photographer)

The best books on Libraries - The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

good books you can find at the library

1 The Care of Books: An Essay on the Development of Libraries and Their Fittings, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century by John Willis Clark

2 palaces for the people: how social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life by eric klinenberg, 3 the library book by susan orlean, 4 the library: a world history by james campbell & will pryce (photographer), 5 the library at night by alberto manguel.

Before we get to the books about libraries you’ve chosen, I wanted to ask what might seem like an obvious question, but I’m not sure that it is as obvious as I thought: What is a library?

I say that it’s an organized body of knowledge. You can also have other organized bodies of knowledge, like archives, which are different to libraries, or indeed, things like Wikipedia. But libraries as organized bodies of knowledge are accumulations of texts or other material or documentary evidence of some kind, either textual, visual, or indeed audio, that is in physical or in digital form, and which have been purposefully acquired in order to provide information or knowledge resources on a particular subject or approach which is normally defined by some kind of policy. Such bodies of knowledge have services set around them.

There are two sorts of people who are vital to this, it seems. First of all, there are the librarians. Secondly, the community of scholars around the library.

Yes, as Ranganathan says in his “The Five Laws of Library Science”, every book its reader and every reader his or her book. The library must think of the user when developing its policy and implementing its policy to build its collection.

Could you just say a little bit as well about your role as Bodley’s Librarian, because it’s an amazing position to be in?

I’m the director of a research library, but it is more like a research library system. The Bodleian Library in Oxford, the historic institution, which I’m the 25th person to be responsible for, is a collection of books, formed partly through gift, partly through legal deposit, and partly through purchase.

“It’s not this safe and cozy world that popular fiction might portray, it’s a dangerous game to be in”

It’s also an institution to which other libraries have been attached. In the 20th century, that was through a process of affiliation. In 2000, it became an organizational integration. There are now 29 libraries that are integrated with the Bodleian, which I’m responsible for. Then there are about 60 other libraries in Oxford, that are coordinated—that’s perhaps the best way to describe it—by the Bodleian in some way. So, they use the same online catalogue system that we provide and maintain and add their records to it. You can search across 90-odd libraries to find books, which may be digital materials that may be collected by any of them. It saves you the effort of doing that.

The Bodleian is an amazing library, and within it are some incredible books. Presumably you’ve not only seen but touched and experienced the magic of engaging with some of these relics. Also, they’re not just relics in the sense of belonging to the past because they have contemporary resonance as well, people keep coming back to them and discovering new things.

That’s one of the fantastic things about the job that I’m in, particularly because I came from the rare books world. I’ve always had a job in libraries where that has been a key part of what I’ve done, and that’s fired me up and inspired me. Today I do much, much less of that but, still, when you’re touching the d’Orville Euclid, the oldest surviving text of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry , written in the ninth century in the imperial academy in Byzantium by Stephen the Clerk for Bishop Arethas of Patras, or when you look at the Clarke Plato , which is the earliest surviving manuscript of Plato ‘s Dialogues , which was also on the shelves of Bishop Arethas’s library in the ninth century—these two books parted company sometime in the early Middle Ages, but ended up united in the 20th century on the shelves of the Bodleian—you really feel that you’re part of the transmission of knowledge and that the library is a conduit of knowledge, not just from one mind to another, but from one epoch to another.

There are also manuscripts, letters, and notebooks in the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to see Kafka ’s notebooks there. Even if the words are exactly the same as in a printed edition, there is something incredible about seeing his handwriting in small, scrappy notebooks.

One of the things that I had to do when I first arrived at the Bodleian as Keeper of Special Collections was to acquire the archive of one branch of the Shelley family – Mary Shelley and her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft . That included the manuscript of Frankenstein . She concocted the story in that famous thunderstorm in Byron’s villa on the banks of Lake Geneva. Then she goes off into Geneva and buys a blank book and writes the text on it. Here it is, this notebook, which has a Geneva watermark. You can see Percy Shelley’s suggestions for improving the phraseology or the wording. I must have touched that notebook 500 times, and it never fails to send a shiver down my spine.

Before I go too green with envy, let’s get to your choice of books about libraries. Which one shall we discuss first?

We could start with an almost ancient book itself now, which is JW Clark’s The Care of Books . This has as its subtitle “an essay on the development of libraries and their fittings, from the earliest times to the end of the 18th century.” I have the second edition, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1909 and it’s well illustrated with photographs and line drawings.

It is an absolutely fantastic historical survey, very detailed, very meticulous scholarship. He goes and visits all the libraries he discusses, right from the ancient world. He’s in an era which is just learning about the excavations in Mesopotamia by Austen Henry Layard, which uncovered the libraries of Ashurbanipal. That had happened 40 years before, and the cuneiform tablets which were in those libraries and archives had been brought back to London, to the British Museum, for decipherment. He picks up on this knowledge and also talks about libraries that are better known, like Hadrian’s Library at Athens. A lot of it is about famous libraries in Britain, like the Oxford and Cambridge college libraries. He’s writing from Cambridge, where he’s an architectural historian and writes a famous architectural history of Cambridge. He is also reading literary texts to pick up snippets of information about how libraries were organized or managed, or how writers engaged with libraries.

I still go to this book for basic information as a starting point. Someday, I’d quite like to update it in the kind of detail that he has. He pulls together a whole variety of sources to give this long overview over 2,000 years.

In a way, it has the same structure as your book, Burning the Books , in the sense that you’ve got that arc of history, though it sounds as if his has an architectural emphasis, whereas yours is more about the fragility of knowledge?

I’d say his book is not purely an architectural history because he does talk about the systems that librarians put in place in order to organize them. He thinks in three dimensions and looks for evidence, not just of the layout of the library in architectural terms, but in the fittings too: What kind of desks did they have? What kind of seats did they have? What kind of catalogues did they have and how were they arranged? How were the books organized on the shelves? It’s more of a practical guide to how libraries were organized in the past.

It doesn’t quite get to the more philosophical detail of the organization of knowledge, classification schemes and things like that. Nor does it talk a lot about the profession of librarian: how did these early librarians get taught their trade? What was the relationship between librarians in monasteries and scriptoria? Those kinds of things aren’t really dealt with in his book, but it’s moving towards that.

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More recent scholarship is much more fragmentary. There are very detailed articles, or there’s the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland , for example, which I wrote a chapter in the first volume, which pulls everything together. But in terms of a single, holistic way of reading about the history of libraries this is still a fantastic book. He writes extremely well, and it’s well-footnoted and extremely well-illustrated, both with drawings and photographs. I think being able to envisage how they’re organized is an important aspect of libraries because they are three-dimensional. He really helps the reader with those illustrations.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose , where a library is central. There are very long descriptions about the physical layout of the library, which mirrors a certain kind of cataloguing system and how it treats prohibited books. It’s interesting that you omitted that book from you list, I thought it might appear.

I wondered about including it. It is wonderfully evocative about libraries. I read it while I was an undergraduate. I’d gone interrailing with a friend in Italy, and my friend picked up an English translation and read it before anyone in the UK had. I remember reading it on the overnight train back from Rome. It’s wonderful in the way it weaves the history of ideas and religious ideas, of heresy and all these things into the plot in a very sophisticated way. The library is almost a character in the book. But it’s just slightly too fanciful. And the librarian is the villain, so I couldn’t recommend it!

Yes, because librarians (and libraries) clearly aren’t villains on the whole. As you stress in your book, they’re mounting this amazing defense against tides of false and misleading information and the desire to erase things, to get rid of unpalatable truths and to hide politically sensitive material forever. We need to stand up for librarians where we can.

That’s part of the reason why I wrote the book, to draw attention not just to the function that libraries and archives play in society, but to the role that librarians and archivists play. I’ve gone through my career either being stereotyped in the popular imagination or being just ignored and treated as irrelevant or worthless. The public needs to know what librarians are, and what we do. It’s not this safe and cozy world that popular fiction might portray, it’s a dangerous game to be in. I have just written a piece for the FT on librarians and archivists in Afghanistan , where they’re literally under attack. I’ve been in touch with one archivist who got beaten up last week, his money and his laptop stolen. He had to get out of Afghanistan and is now in Pakistan because of the work he was doing.

There’s also a stereotype of librarians as being somehow out of touch because they’re so bookish, when in reality they have to be right at the cutting edge with new technology. With each major change of technology, there’s a risk that the thing that’s most treasured, the main resource of the library, will be lost or no longer be accessible—whether it’s papyrus fragmenting or digital books replacing paper ones, or somebody pressing a button that deletes all the books.

Yes. Also, still on the Afghanistan theme, there are a number of libraries around the world at the moment who are archiving Afghan websites, because they are being attacked by the Taliban. There’s one website of an independent library that has been built since 2017, in memory of a woman who was killed by a Taliban suicide bomb . That library has been attacked by the Taliban and the website has been taken down. We don’t know why. But capturing that information is of great current concern.

Let’s move to your second book. This is Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People , which is more general than a book about libraries.

It is, but one of the key aspects of Eric’s book is this idea that libraries—and he’s really talking about public libraries—are social infrastructure. He talks very eloquently about the New York Public Library system, and particularly about the branch libraries, how they are places where public education can take place, where the patrons are not judged by how much money they have, but are treated equally, no matter what segment of society they come from. They are open long hours, sometimes they’re there simply to provide a warm place for people to gather. Sometimes they’re the only place that young people can go for quiet study if they have an assignment to do for their school, because their home is too noisy or disruptive. Sometimes they are places where people go to find bits of information for practical reasons, like they’re starting a small business, and they don’t have the resources to get information in other ways.

In the 19th century, libraries began to be established as a legal requirement by public authorities. I think the public library is evolving from being simply a place for self-service, to being a place which is much more proactive in communities. So, during lockdown, lots of public libraries in the UK and in the US would know their elderly clientele and they had a rota to telephone them. If they knew that there was an elderly person living on their own who would normally come into the library, they would call them up and just talk to them. Now, this isn’t what you get taught to do in library school, or at least it wasn’t when I was there, but it’s part of that sense that libraries are community places.

You see that also in local history collections, or in exhibits that local libraries put on to commemorate elements of their local community, whether it’s in New York, for example, perhaps celebrating the history of different waves of immigration, the ethnic makeup of the boroughs, and their contribution to those communities.

What I also like about the book is that Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist. He’s not someone you would immediately expect to write about libraries. He’s coming at it with the perspective of someone who’s written about inequality, about the impact of the heatwave in Chicago and climate change. It’s fantastic to have somebody looking at libraries in this way and drawing attention to them. He wrote a very powerful essay in the New York Times as an op-ed, just before the book came out, which was very influential, and widely read in America. It’s a book that identifies the library in our moment in history and what it can do for society.

Isn’t there a worry, though, that if you focus not on the reading material but on the social functions of a library, it could be reduced to an app eventually? You don’t need a physical space for books, you don’t need people who are curating them, all you need is a very well-constructed app that allows you to get access to everything?

I don’t think that’s true, partly because not everybody has access to the internet. If you look at the figures in the UK, the digitally disenfranchised are an extraordinary segment of the population and that’s also where public libraries are very valuable. Not only to provide the technology, the hardware and the internet access but, much more importantly, librarians who are supportive and will help you without judging you, will guide you through the complex interfaces of a public or government digital system that you have to navigate in order to get public benefits, for example. A library might be somewhere where you can meet other people and form a community group. A local society might meet in a room that the library provides in order to, say, learn a language. There are all sorts of things that could be distilled into an app, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be an improvement.

Coming from a lower middle-class background with a house full of books, going to the public library was still an eyeopener for me: the range of books, the things that I borrowed. I’ve got a deep affection for libraries, and that continued through working on my PhD, when I spent a lot of time in libraries. But there are people coming through, like my children who are now adults, who use libraries as a place where they study, not as a place to go for books. I wonder if that’s a trend, that libraries are becoming spaces within which people work, rather than where they actually get hold of the books?

I hear that perspective a lot. I hear it from some senior administrators in universities. I would argue that libraries have always been physical places to work. Perhaps in the past they would have been more of a curated space, if you like, conducive to quiet study and deep concentration, where some of the materials that you use for your writing may indeed be provided by that library in hardcopy form. However, libraries today rely less on analogue materials, and more on digital materials. Those digital materials can indeed be consulted anywhere that you have internet access and the ability to access them through some form of authentication. We are developing the concept of  ‘Space as a Service’ which sums up this issue, I think.

Depending on the rights that are licensed for that particular book, presumably?

Yes, that’s what authentication means here, that you are authenticating yourself as somebody who is encompassed by the rights that the library negotiates on your behalf. So perhaps there is a slight moving away from the ‘you can only access this by coming into the library’ and therefore that’s why you come into the library.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily ever been solely the case, that the only people who came into the library 40 years ago were coming to look at books. There were plenty of people who were coming in there simply to write and think. Bruce Chatwin came into the Bodleian, and I don’t think he looked at books in the Bodleian much. That wasn’t mostly why he was going in there. He was going in there as a place to think and to write after he came back from Patagonia or Australia. That’s what he did, he wrote those books up in the Bod.

Shall we go on to your third book? This is The Library Book by Susan Orlean .

This book is in a somewhat similar vein to Eric Klinenberg’s, in that it’s concentrating on public libraries and trying to reignite a sense of their power and function. But it approaches this in a very different way. It’s solely about the Los Angeles Public Library. It tells, essentially, two narratives. One is about the destruction of the LA Public Library in 1987, through a fire. The other is more of a historical account of the evolution of the library and the librarians who worked in it, the kinds of things that they did for their community and what it’s like today. I like the way that it’s arranged with old-fashioned catalogue cards at the start of each chapter, which broadly identify the themes. It’s a little gimmicky in that way, but I fell for it. It’s really well written. She writes for The New Yorker and is an absolutely terrific writer.

“The public library is evolving from being simply a place for self-service, to being a place which is much more proactive in communities”

Particularly in California—which is a very digital world in the second decade of the 21st century—why would a public library in a great metropolis still have value? Why would its stories still be of interest? The answer is that the stories are gripping: how the LA Public Library responded to the First World War, or how particularly female librarians rose to the top of their profession and became the directors of the LA Public Library in the middle of the 20th century. It’s a great reminder of the power of a civic institution, even though it’s written by an outsider—or perhaps because it’s written by an outsider, somebody who wasn’t employed by the library.

This is something that I worry about a lot. You’re speaking to someone who’s written a book about libraries and archives, who is a librarian and an archivist. Are we too inside the world we’re writing about to write objectively and dispassionately? Or are we bringing a sense of the complexity of the role, particularly in the 21st century, that somebody outside might not be able to comprehend so readily?

A quotation in your book that struck me is when you’re writing about the destruction of a number of great libraries, including the Library of Alexandria, and talking about the ethos that connects contemporary librarians with librarians of the past. You write, “What survives is more of an ethos—the ethos that knowledge holds great power, that the pursuit of gathering it and preserving it is a valuable task, and that its loss can be an early warning sign of a decaying civilisation.” That focus on gathering and preserving knowledge and recognizing the importance of that, you get an acute sense of that when you see how easily it’s lost, how easily the chains are broken.

You’re absolutely right, and thank you for picking up that quote. One other thing that’s going on at the moment that I try to address sensitively in the book is that my profession has been through a period where its emphasis has moved away from the collection to the service. There’s a librarian in America called Scott Walter who coined the phrase ‘the service turn’ that libraries have gone through. The main focus is, ‘What are the needs of our readers? We’re not going to obsess about the collection and building it and owning things, or preservation and those kinds of things, we’re going to focus on getting the books to the readers.’

I simplify grossly, but that’s certainly something I’ve lived through in my profession. Something that we in the Bodleian have tried to do under my leadership and my predecessor’s leadership is to try and be much more user centric. That’s the phrase we use a lot. There is a danger that if you’re just interested in preservation or acquiring collections, you’re not going to get advancement in your career because it’s not what the bosses of libraries think is important. In the profession people aren’t focused on the preservation side of things, you even see people boasting about getting rid of collections. They’re moving resources and funding away from preservation in order to make access better funded and resourced. My response to that is that we must recognize what preservation does for society, and I try to use the phrase ‘preservation as a service’. It is not just something that people do in the back room to try to keep things away from readers and say, ‘This is all mine!’ There was a bit of that in the past and I think that’s partly why the service turn came about. There were librarians who felt that the collection was theirs and didn’t mind if it took 30 years to catalogue it.

I’ve tried to give talks about preservation as service for communities. We did a project with the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the UK, because we have great Ethiopian and Eritrean collections. They were grateful to us for having preserved these things and kept their culture alive in the UK, where they had ended up, and that they can access it. They could see the colors and hear the language again, and it was incredibly moving. So, preservation as a service.

The flipside of preservation, though, as you’ve stressed in your book, is destruction. It’s a sad history, this history of libraries. So many great libraries have been destroyed, or huge portions of their collections have been destroyed, throughout history. It seems that it’s always a fight against loss, as much as the positive activity of preserving and cataloguing things. Some of the loss is deliberate, some of it is accidental, but it’s still loss. I was struck by the quotation in your Burning the Books from Gibbon about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria being an occasion for ‘regret and indignation’. I’m left with this feeling of ‘Oh, no, all those books that we’ll never see! All those amazing things that have been lost!’ Without that sense that these things might go, presumably there wouldn’t be the same drive to preserve?

That’s what motivated Thomas Bodley to re-found the Bodleian Library. He recognized the losses of the Reformation . The generation before him had plundered the libraries, including the one which he re-founded. He went to Duke Humfrey’s Library and set his staff at the library door “being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students’. He basically disinherited his family and poured all his money into it

I love that he put his money where his mouth was, and just said, ‘Okay, we need to keep this well-funded for the future.’

Yes. Unfortunately, the endowment that he gave the university to fund my post was loaned to Charles I in the 1640s to fight the Civil War and was never returned. It was recorded as a debt in our annual accounts until 1798, when it was written off.

Let’s go on to the next book, which is The Library: A World History by James Campbell.

James is an architectural historian and this is a book he wrote with photographer Will Pryce, a wonderful photographer. To some extent, it brings Clark up to date in that it’s a long sweep of history, it begins with the ancient world and moves forward to modern libraries. Like Clark, he is an architectural historian, but his focus is much more on the architecture rather than on the functioning of libraries.

But I think the real strength of his book is in the section on the great European libraries of the 18th and 19th centuries. So it includes institutions I’ve been to like the Strahov Library in Prague, the Mafra in Portugal, the Admont Abbey Library, the Abbey Library of Saint Gall in Switzerland. These are extraordinary Baroque and Rococo creations, which look inside like wedding cakes. They’re absolutely amazing. I think this period is his specialty as an architectural historian, and he writes about them with great passion and interest and depth. I often use it as a way into library history, as a first port of call.

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It’s called a world history and there are some libraries in China and Japan that he does include, but it is predominantly about European and North American libraries. I showed him around the Bodleian once, and I took him on various behind-the-scenes tours when he was doing his research.

The book costs 50 quid, but that’s pretty good value: there must be 300 colour photographs and Thames and Hudson publishes it beautifully. As a broad overview of the history of libraries as structures it’s an absolutely fantastic book and I highly recommend it.

I should mention that I haven’t yet read a new book published by Profile called The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen . It’s not published until next month, but I’m reviewing it. It’s highly possible that if we’d done this interview in a month’s time, I might have recommended that one.

Going back to the Campbell book, obviously these libraries are quite amazing physical, imposing buildings. Are great libraries like this being built still?

Oh, yes. Incredible libraries are being built all the time. There are very small, jewel-like libraries being built in Oxford and Cambridge colleges. St. John’s College, Oxford just built a beautiful new library. The architects Wright and Wright have a specialism in libraries, so they also did the new extension for the library at Magdalen College, Oxford as well as the new library at Lambeth Palace. It’s an attempt to reconnect Lambeth Palace with the local community and to make the palace and the library and its treasures and the whole estate more accessible. There’s a tower that members of the public are allowed to go up and view the gardens and the neighborhood. It’s a viewpoint which otherwise doesn’t exist in that part of London. It also has exhibition galleries. That’s quite a good example of a new small boutique library.

But there are also great big new library buildings being built and or that have been built recently. Rem Koolhaas did the amazing Seattle public library nearly 20 years ago now. It’s absolutely astonishing modern architecture. A Japanese architecture firm called SANAA did the new university library in Lausanne for the École Polytechnique. It’s called the Rolex Learning Center, so you can guess where the money came from, but it’s like a piece of Swiss cheese that’s been dropped from space. It’s the only library that I’ve ever been in that has internal hills – so the cheese hasn’t dropped flat. It is absolutely wild, but it’s incredibly popular. It’s open to the public. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant there too. It’s absolutely vast, a whole campus center, as well as the library. The maths library has this very, very quiet, silent space so that you can really think through those equations. Then there’s flexible seating so that students can work in groups but separated off because there’s a hill between them and the maths section.

There’s another, even more photographically-driven book, with beautiful colour photographs, by a famous German photographer, Candida Höfer that I like . Again, when she came to photograph in the Bodleian, I had the pleasure of escorting her to the Radcliffe Camera and to Duke Humfrey’s Library. She’s sometimes photographing the same libraries as Will Pryce, but in a very different way. Will Pryce seems, to me, to capture the atmosphere of the libraries he visits, the lighting is much more variable. Candida Höfer’s style is much more analytic. She comes from the Dusseldorf School so she was taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher.

The Bechers were famous for obsessively photographing very similar architectural features with subtle variations. Where somebody else might look for dissimilarities between libraries, I suspect she’d find similarities?

The photographs are laid out on the page, without text. You’re driven to the photographs, whereas the text and the photographs are integrated with each other in the Campbell and Pryce book. But that analytic style, that very geometrical approach, conveys the beauty of the ordinary, which I guess is what the Dusseldorf School was trying to do. That repetition with those small variations is where beauty lies. You see the similarities between libraries that may be separated by geography. Or she photographs piles of books, with just their four edges outward. She’s drawn to the pattern, to the geometry, to the visual impact, of what she sees, whereas we as librarians might just see a pile of books and think, ‘Quick, let’s get them on the shelf.’

It’s the visual equivalent of musical minimalism for me. That book didn’t quite make the five though?

It was a near miss. It doesn’t have that utilitarian value that the other five have for what they write about libraries. Like you, Nigel, I’m a great lover of photography. This is a book to go to just to see the beauty of a great photographer at work in great libraries.

Let’s talk about your final choice, The Library at Night.

This is a by a wonderful writer called Alberto Manguel. He’s Argentinian but has lived both in France and in Canada for much of his life. He now lives in Portugal. For a time, he was the national librarian of Argentina, the successor to Jorge Luis Borges who was his great hero.

This is someone who is a great writer and a great teacher, who has also been both a professional librarian, running the national library of the country of his birth, but also a serious book collector. He’s not a collector of fine or rare books, particularly, but a collector of books to read. I think his private library is now 30,000 books or something like that. I’ve got some way to go before I get there! His collection has now been acquired by the Portuguese government as a center for writing, literacy and the appreciation of books and texts. They’re building a special building to house it in and­—full disclosure—I’m one of the advisors for him on this project.

But I really would recommend the book. It’s not a textbook, it’s not a history, although it does cover a lot of history. It’s a series of meditations, really, on libraries. He’s somebody who, in his private library, when it was in their home in France, would get up in the middle of the night and just wander in and pull books from the shelves and read them because he couldn’t sleep. It’s a series of encounters with books, both books as artifacts, and as time travel. It’s a meditation on libraries, both institutional and private, and what it means to collect books, whether you’re Aby Warburg, or Hans Sloane—whose collection was the foundation of the British Museum Library (now the British Library)—or one of the librarians in Tabriz or Baghdad before it was destroyed by the Mongols. It’s a book which you can dip into, you don’t need to read it from cover to cover. It’s got an index. It’s a book which gives enormous pleasure but also insight into the motivations for collecting books, organizing them into bodies of knowledge, and all that those tasks entail. Ultimately, it’s about the pleasure of doing that, the pleasure of owning books, the pleasure of collecting them, of organizing them. He’s also written another book called Packing My Library .

The prequel to Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”?

Yes, because he had to move his library several times. It’s a nice coda to The Library at Night.

It strikes me listening to you talk about Manguel and Borges, and thinking of Philip Larkin, who is another famous librarian who wrote books, that a lot of librarians write. Do you think people who want to write are drawn to becoming librarians, or is it because hanging out with all those books, you eventually succumb to doing it yourself?

That’s a good question. My next book is going to be about librarians. I’m accumulating notes of various people who were librarians who we think of in other ways, like Casanova, for example. Or Mao Zedong: the Communist Party in China was founded by his boss, Li Dazhao, who was the director of the Peking University Library where Mao worked. Leibniz was a librarian, who wrote an important treatise on archival theory. David Hume was the librarian of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh in the 18th century. There are great associations between writers or intellectuals and libraries, but very few of them write about their libraries. Leibniz’s work on archival theory is not quite what I mean here, very few of them write about what it’s like to be a librarian or what it means to be a librarian, and perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to Alberto’s book.

September 27, 2021

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Richard Ovenden

©John Cairns

Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden is the 25th Bodley’s Librarian, the senior executive position of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Previously, he held positions at Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh. He moved to the Bodleian Libraries in 2003 as Keeper of Special Collections, becoming Deputy Librarian in 2011, and Librarian in 2014. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.

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The 100 Must-Read Books of 2023

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A Day in the Life of Abed Salama

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The San Francisco Standard

Here Are San Francisco Public Library’s 10 Most Checked-Out Books in 2023—So Far

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A person holds a book with "S.F. Public Library" stamped on it.

The San Francisco Public Library has released a list of its most popular book titles checked out so far in 2023.

Fiction titles that were among the top circulating in each of the print, e-book and audiobook formats were the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Demon Copperhead" by Barbara Kingsolver, "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" by Gabrielle Zevin, "Lessons in Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus and "Happy Place" by Emily Henry.

Memoirs made up eight of the top 10 titles in the print nonfiction category, with Prince Harry's "Spare" topping the list for nonfiction print and e-books and being the library system's top audiobook of the year.

RELATED: Beyond the Books: Why This San Francisco Public Library Is More Than a Quiet Place

For children's books, "Dog Man" author Dav Pilkey had six spots on the top 10 by himself, while "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever" by Jeff Kinney and two "Elephant and Piggie" books by Mo Willems making up the other four titles.

Young adult fiction's top 10 list was heavily populated with books that have had movie or TV adaptations, such as "The Summer I Turned Pretty" by Jenny Han and "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.

Vinyl records are also in the library system's circulation and two classics—"Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis and "The Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd -- topped the highest-circulating list for 2023, with the Taylor Swift album "Evermore" third and another Swift album in the top 10.

Top Print Adult Fiction

1. When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

2. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

3. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

4. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

5. The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

6. Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

7. When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar

8. Dry by Neal Shusterman

9. Happy Place by Emily Henry

10. Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano   

Top eBooks Adult Fiction

1. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

3. Happy Place by Emily Henry

4. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

5. Verity by Colleen Hoover

7. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

8. The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

9. It Starts With Us by Colleen Hoover

10. Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Top Print Adult Nonfiction

1. Spare by Harry

2. The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times by Michelle Obama

3. This Is Ear Hustle: Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods

4. Solito by Javier Zamora

5. I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

6. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

7. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

8. Stay True by Hua Hsu

9. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

10. Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond

Top eBook Adult Nonfiction

2. I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

3. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

4. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

5. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

6. Stay True by Hua Hsu

7. The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times by Michelle Obama

8. Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity by Peter Attia

9. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

10. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson

Top Teen Fiction

1. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

2. The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

4. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

5. Heartstopper. Volume 1 by Alice Oseman

6. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

7. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

8. Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

9. A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

10. One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

1. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

2. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

3. Evermore by Taylor Swift

4. Abbey Road by The Beatles

5. An Evening with Silk Sonic by Thundercat

6. Purple Rain by Prince

7. Folklore by Taylor Swift

8. Fine Line by Harry Styles

9. A Love Supreme by John Coltrane  

10. Thriller 25 by Michael Jackson

Questions, comments or concerns about this article may be sent to [email protected]

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Books Recommended With Uncommon Wisdom and Tender Care

Five yearning Tokyo readers get life advice with their borrowed volumes in Michiko Aoyama’s “What You Are Looking For Is in the Library.”

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By Robin Sloan

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WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS IN THE LIBRARY, by Michiko Aoyama. Translated by Alison Watts.

Here is a novel about the bone-deep thrill of things working out.

“What You Are Looking For Is in the Library” is the first of Michiko Aoyama’s many novels, originally written in Japanese, to be published in the United States. Its five narrators, men and women, range from the newly adult to the newly retired. The links between their lives are thin but strong, and the web that emerges between them, in Aoyama’s imagined Hatori ward of Tokyo, vibrates with the coincidence and interdependence of urban life.

The novel’s translator, Alison Watts, faithfully shepherds into English a cast of characters who are wonderfully wide open: smart and searching, but not trying to impress. The prose is diaristic and hyper-casual — the tone of much contemporary Japanese fiction.

“It was a shock,” 65-year-old Masao reports, “when New Year came after I retired, and I received none of the usual cards or end-of-year gifts. I was shaken to realize that all my relationships had been business ones, and that I had no real friends after all, not even somebody to drink tea with.”

Each character takes a turn with Mrs. Komachi, the gnomic librarian of the Hatori Community House, whose book recommendations push their lives in unexpected directions. Although she takes the stage as a hulking Studio Ghibli character — “ Kyaah!” 30-year-old Hiroya exclaims, “The sight of a humongous, fearsome woman squished behind the counter nearly causes my heart to stop” — her precise development across the book’s five sections is a triumph of novelistic information management.

Reading “What You Are Looking For Is in the Library,” I felt preemptively protective, because it is the kind of story often dismissed as “cute” or “light.” Those labels don’t capture the muscularity of what’s happening here, nor do they capture the risk: Of course, kindness can be cloying. Good luck can be eye-rolling.

J.R.R. Tolkien invented a term, eucatastrophe , for “the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn.’” It takes real novelistic skill to set up such a turn — one that thrills and magnetizes to exactly the same degree as a gnarly twist or a shocking rug-pull.

Likewise, in a 2015 column for this newspaper, the writer Alice Gregory argued that “a truly radical 21st-century novelist” would “ask us to see the arduous and often acrobatic effort that goes into living a life of common decency.” Furthermore, “they would coerce us into believing that virtue is interesting and fun to think about and far more dazzling to encounter than malevolence.”

Over and over, Aoyama demonstrates how it’s done. In her Hatori ward, good fortune is not arbitrary or unearned; it is never a gauzy gift from the universe. It arises instead from action, experience and wisdom. Her characters appreciate each other; they are grateful to each other; they recognize in each other quality and potential. (Put these folks in a laboratory dish with the dramatis personae of a cynical HBO show and they’d annihilate each other, matter and antimatter.)

There’s more to Aoyama’s novel than kindness. There is a subtle, provocative thread about misremembering; a pageant of interesting jobs; and a suite of mature, cooperative relationships.

There is also the spectacle, for an American reader, of a society in which the worst that can happen to you … simply isn’t that bad. This novel’s entire plot depends on accessible civic infrastructure! The challenges of life in Hatori ward aren’t existential — a fact that is quietly but powerfully political.

And there is, of course, the library.

You’ve got to be careful with novels about libraries and bookstores. Even more with novels that include “library” or “bookstore” in the title . Most of all with novels that additionally feature a cat on the cover.

The risk, in all these cases, is flattery. It feels nice to be assured that the places you find appealing are, in fact, wonderful. It’s also boring. The standard for such novels, therefore, is that they reveal something interesting and true about these environments.

Aoyama passes the test. Her library is not an enchanted domain fragranced with the smell of books (which, I will remind you, is mostly the smell of glue). It is a small space in a neighborhood community center, down the hall from the room where adult students learn how to use Microsoft Excel.

“Rows and rows of bookshelves fill an area about the size of a classroom,” unromantic and unremarkable — except for the transformations it catalyzes in these characters’ lives, which amount, in all five cases, to a grand reconsideration of their options.

I’ve revealed that everything works out in “What You Are Looking For Is in the Library.” That’s no spoiler. It’s plain from the first page, from the tenderness with which writer and translator treat their characters. Yet the novel is an undeniable page-turner, its mechanism energized by a simple question, posed again and again by the uncanny librarian, Mrs. Komachi.

The question brings Michiko Aoyama’s characters often to the brink of tears; and not only her characters, but this reader, too. It is the great question of the library, and of the bookstore, and maybe of life:

What are you looking for?

Robin Sloan is the author of “Sourdough” and “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.” His next novel is forthcoming in 2024.

WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS IN THE LIBRARY | By Michiko Aoyama. Translated by Alison Watts. | 304 pp. | Hanover Square Press | $21.99

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Want to know about the best books to read and the latest news start here..

The political artist Edel Rodriguez drew some of the most provocative images of the Trump presidency. His new graphic memoir skewers the powerful once more .

Barbra Streisand’s 970-page memoir, “My Name is Barbra,” is a victory lap past all who ever doubted or diminished her, our critic writes .

Rebecca Yarros drew on her experience with chronic illness and life in a military family to write “Fourth Wing,” a huge best seller that spawned a spicy fantasy series .

Do you want to be a better reader?   Here’s some helpful advice to show you how to get the most out of your literary endeavor .

Each week, top authors and critics join the Book Review’s podcast to talk about the latest news in the literary world. Listen here .

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Top 10 books you can find in a library

What makes a teen want to read a book? According to students at St Paul's Community College, Waterford and the Oasis Academy, Enfield, a good book has the ability to shock, sadden or awaken some sort of emotion. A good book has characters the students can identify with and relate to; characters that remind them of friends or even themselves. A good book takes them to towns just like their own, or to far off cities they hope to someday visit. Based on these answers and what is popular right now, here is a list of the top ten books you can find in a library near you!

1. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This is a powerhouse of a book. It is a story in which, as the reader, you know what the inevitable outcome will be for the main character, but the journey that he goes on is so beautifully unravelled that you cannot help but be moved by it. A novel about pain and loss, acceptance and self-realisation, as well as the act of story-telling itself, this is a beautiful novel in so many ways. This is a novel that is essential reading, and is always top of my list when pupils are asking me for my suggestions of the next book they should read.

2. Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

This book follows a girl called Stephanie who meets a stranger called Skulduggery Pleasant at her Uncle's funeral, and soon finds herself dragged into an adventure involving trolls, vampires, wizards and a walking, talking skeleton detective. This book, and the rest in the series, have a fantastic cast of characters and are funny, exciting and will keep you coming back for more. This book is an absolute treat, and I cannot resist recommending it to any young people in my school, from year seven and beyond.

3. Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

Refugee Boy tells the story of Alem, brought to England by his Father fleeing the war in Ethiopia. This book convincingly conveys what it must feel like to be a young refugee, alone in a strange country and the struggle Alem must go through to find care and stability in the face of hostility and bureaucracy. This is a novel of both sorrow and joy, and a great book to recommend to young people from year seven and above who want a "real" story to get their teeth into

4. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

I read this a few years ago now by listening to the audio book and it is one of those books that lingers in your memory. The story follows a teenage girl from America, visiting her cousins and Aunt in the UK when war breaks out, and she and her cousins are left to look after themselves and each other. The story is told in an almost dream-like way while, at the same time, conveying some of the horrors of a war that they neither fathom nor understand. The last scenes of this novel are haunting, and I love to recommend this book to pupils in year nine and above.

5. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is one of those books that I studied during English Literature A-level and showed me what a serious novel could really do. This is one of my all-time favourite novels, and one of those books that I have read a number of times since studying it, and is better every time. I try to recommend this book to year eleven pupils and above, who have had a taste of dystopian fiction and are ready to make that step towards reading something that will challenge them.

6. New Town Soul by Dermot Bolger

New Town Soul is a supernatural thriller for older readers situated in the real world of the contemporary teenage experience in Ireland. Friendship and love are central to this story. Shane is Joey's new best friend. Joey pines for Geraldine, but his love is unrequited. Geraldine refuses to have anything to do with him while Shane is around. Shane and Geraldine have met before – an event neither of them will ever forget. The tale carefully and cleverly unravels the truth about Shane's history, taking the reader on a compelling, moving and unsettling journey.

7. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan is a beautifully written tale of how a mighty gorilla wins his freedom, and a deserving winner of the Newbery Medal 2013. There is just the right amount of humour and pathos. Ivan is an easy-going gorilla who has spent his life performing for the crowds at the Exit 8 shopping mall. He does not miss his life in the jungle. In fact he hardly ever thinks about it at all. Everything changes when a baby elephant called Ruby arrives and Ivan realises he must find a new life for them both

8. The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead is a believable, realistic and thought provoking zombie story. It consists of a series of graphic novels, made into a popular TV show. Teens watching the show, turn to the books which are as good if not better. The graphic novels are engaging, the artwork is amazing, the characters are well developed, everything gets better and better as the series goes on.

9. The Zom B Series by Darren Shan

The Zom B is the first book in a 12-volume series (titles are being released at a projected rate of four a year until the middle of 2015). The protagonist of this series is a morally questionable kid trying, and usually failing, to move beyond the ingrained racism instilled in him by his father. It is a brave move by Shan to conceive such a bigoted hooligan as the anti hero. B. Smith is bored at school, his home life is miserable. He makes one wrong choice after another, leading up to the moment of truth, when a devastating zombie outbreak turns everyday existence into a life-or-death struggle. It is a page-turner building steadily to the cliff-hanger ending that readers expect from Shan. Fast paced and unpredictable, a good choice for any teen that likes the gore and grizzle of a good horror story.

10. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Hugo is an orphan and a thief, living in the walls of a Paris train station and trying to fix one of the broken machines while avoiding the Station Inspector. He is eventually caught by an old toymaker and his goddaughter, who vow to help him. This touching story sucks you in and has you hooked before the first line! Any fans of the film should track down this book.

Hilary Cantwell is a librarian at St Paul's Community College in Waterford, Republic of Ireland.

John Iona is librarian at the Oasis Academy in Enfield, Middlesex.

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SLJ's Best Books lists are posting over the next few days. Download the full list!

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TONI MORRISON WROTE, “Efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare.”

You are the ones doing the important work—giving children access to the life-changing books that will inspire them to create the unwritten novels, unstaged plays, and essays that challenge authority and the powers that be.

We hope that our 169 choices help you do that important work.

THE BEST BOOKS PROCESS is a long one. It begins even as we finalize the prior year’s list, as we’ve already begun assigning books to review in advance of the new year. The editors keep track of every title we have starred, because our contenders are selected from among them. In the summer, we start the process in earnest, selecting committee members from our talented reviewers. They help us identify books we may have missed or gems that may have not been starred but deserve a second look. Then, after months of reading, discussion, and deliberation, each committee makes their selections, with 15 to 25 titles per category.

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This list wouldn’t be as rich and relevant without them.

Much appreciation to the indomitable Michaela Goade for her incredible artistry and breathtaking art. Just, wow. She stands in for all the authors and illustrators represented on this list.

Last, behind the scenes, this issue and all year long, thanks to the creative team of Mark Tuchman and Josephine Marc-Anthony (with editorial assistant Andrew Giakoumis’s help), who set covers and illustrations into the text like jewels and make the entire magazine the accessible, beautiful volume it is.

Over the next few days, we’re revealing the 169 selections by categories. Below is the schedule.  11/20 – Transitional Books , Poetry Books , Top 10 Manga 11/21 – Graphic Novels, YA , Middle Grade 11/22 – Nonfiction Elementary , Nonfiction Middle to High School , Picture Books

A PDF of the full list will also be available on November 22. You can find all the lists on our Best Books 2023 landing page .

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What Book Should I Read Next?...Librarians to the Rescue!

Happy girl surrounded by books

My favorite work question to get asked is “Can you help me find a good book?” I absolutely love this part of my job!

The libraryland term for what I do is called “reader’s advisory,” booksellers call it “handselling.” I just call it talking about books! I was a bookseller at a large chain store (it rhymes with Darns and Mobile). I also worked at a comic book store called Meltdown, and I spent time slinging books at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. Yes, I am a librarian that still dreams of someday having a tiny cramped bookstore or a bookmobile. I have had friends ask for “a good book recommendation” only to be sent a three-page list of books with descriptions and reasoning; I recently gave someone books for their birthday with individual notes inside of them. I am the librarian that gets “shushed” by the patrons when I get overly excited while talking up books to a teen. While I am admittedly, not always up on the “new hotness”, I will absolutely try to find you a great book with my philosophy that “any book you haven’t read is a new book.”

While we’ve been staying safer at home, I realized how much I miss doing this part of my job. Luckily, I have bookish family members and friends who will email, text, or put out social media calls for help. Connecting them with a great book is always a joy, but I also love to help people learn how to find books they will enjoy on their own. After all, librarians are just about the only professionals who are happy to teach you how to do our job!

So, I wanted to share a few, perhaps a slew, of my preferred library databases, lists, and awards that you can use to find your next favorite book or ten. I hope you enjoy them, and you don’t get too upset with me for blowing up your TBR list. And someday, when we’re all together again, maybe you’ll get to tell your librarian about a great book you think they might enjoy!

Happy Reading!

If you’re looking for a good book, this database, available for free with your library card, is the place to go. It will guide you through different questions about genres and moods to find suggestions, and there are booklists galore. It can also give you read-alikes for books you have already enjoyed.

  • California Fiction Index

A fun place to search for literature set in, or about, California. Use keywords to find novels that take place in your neighborhood or your favorite city.

A peek at what our librarians are reading and lists of books that are created and updated by our staff.

LAPL Teen Web’s New and Recommended Page

Found on our TeenWeb, these genre book lists and award-winning books are sure to spark interest.

The resources under “ Book Lists ” have been created by our library staff and usually have a theme to the list, or are the "Best Of" books we’ve chosen. The “ Award Books ” are from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). The award-winning books are chosen by a panel of librarians and there are strict guidelines governing what books are eligible and the criteria for selection. A couple of these awards may also be of particular interest to adult readers.

  • The Printz Award : “Given to Young Adult novels that “exemplify literary excellence.” If you’re a fan of Literary Fiction, this might be a place to look for unique novels that don’t always make it into mainstream discussions. Some notable winners that you may already know are Looking for Alaska by John Green, March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, and honor book The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
  • The Alex Award : Awarded to Adult books with Young Adult appeal. It’s a great place to find plot-driven stories. Way back when there were no “Young Adult” books. There were kids' books and books. Once you were finished with Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and C.S. Lewis, a middle school, or even a particularly precocious elementary school reader would start to drift into the grown-up book section. We found Stephen King, romance novels and science fiction, and fantasy tomes. Now, you can look through the books that have received this award and find stories to fall into.
  • Resources for Readers

A hub for websites about book awards, book lists, review sites, and our literature databases. I want to highlight one of these links in particular that I use almost every single day not only in my work but as a reader myself.

Websites that are not listed on our Resources for Readers page (yet?). Most bookish websites have more than just reviews; blogs, podcasts, and book clubs abound. These are places to find your people.

  • Goodreads.com is a crossroads for reading and social media. Great for keeping track of books you’ve read and books you want to read, you can also connect with friends and authors and see what they have on their nightstand. Goodreads also has book lists created by and voted on by users, virtual book clubs, and a fantastic, searchable collection of literary quotes. You can also find read-alikes by looking at other books that people who have read a certain book have rated highly. Use this website to search for series and check the order of the books and to see when the next book by an author is expected.
  • Book Riot : Booklists, book reviews, and articles about reading and bibliophilia. They also have brilliantly entertaining podcasts that cover genre fiction, new fiction, and non-fiction. Anything you explore on this site is pretty much guaranteed to blow up your TBR (To Be Read) list!
  • Smart Bitches Trashy Books : A smart, sassy (and perhaps slightly swear-y) website dedicated to all things Romance. This community of readers and reviewers  have (mostly) moved beyond those classic Harlequin novels and can give you recommendations for new authors and books for every level of sauciness and for readers of all ages.
  • Forever Young Adult : “For YA readers who are a little less Y and a bit more A” Reviews and articles about young adult media geared towards those of us who aren’t as young and are now just considered adults. The site has even helped to create book clubs all over the country.
  • The Lesbrary : “a book blog about bi and lesbian books, with occasional coverage of other identities…” The lesbrarian’s reviews and book lists span across genres and ages. They also invite you to submit your own reviews or interviews to the site and they keep a list of Sapphic and Queer lit blogs.

After all this you may wonder what I’m currently reading I will say, in these bizarre times I don’t know anyone whose reading habits haven’t been affected and changed in one way or another. When I find myself in uncertain or stressful times I tend to re-read books. Here are some that I’ve been revisiting and some that are new (to me) books.

Revisiting Books

Book cover for Feed

Yes, I’m going to recommend a zombie apocalypse book. But this one, in particular, is unique in my opinion because it has come after the running and the screaming. This is the post-zombie world where people have adapted and where bloggers and online journalists were the first to notice the disease. Now, we join a group of journalists embedded in a presidential campaign. They are looking at the future, but the past looms as they begin to discover that the origin of the pandemic may not be as mysterious as they thought. Surprisingly comforting and humorous I enjoyed reading this series and also listening to the audiobooks. Don’t miss the novellas!

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Book cover for World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Written as a documentary/oral history you’ll get unique insights into how a zombie apocalypse, or any pandemic, could affect the world from military, societal and human perspectives. Surprisingly thought-provoking and the audiobook is particularly amazing not only because the text is so well suited to an aural format but also because the list of narrators includes people like Carl and Rob Reiner, Henry Rollins and Mark Hamill.

Reading for the First Time

Book cover for Undead Girl Gang

When you are the only one who believes that your best friend has been murdered, and you were novice witches, there’s clearly only one thing you can do...Use a mysterious spell to bring her back and find her killer. And if you happen to accidentally bring back two mean girls who also recently died in slightly mysterious circumstances? Well, that’s awkward…

Book cover for The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter

When Mary Jekyll (daughter of the infamous Doctor) meets Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein the ladies join forces to take down a secret society of mad scientists. Cool fictional women running around Victorian London, hopefully wearing amazing dresses, and quashing evildoers? Yes, please!

The combination of staying safer at home and the change of season to autumn, also known as Cozy-Times in my household, means I’m looking for nesting inspiration. These three interior design and lifestyle books have beautiful pictures and projects that I hope to use as a jumping-off point for decorating my home, cooking tasty treats, and finding projects to try.

Book cover for The New Bohemians: Cool and Collected Homes

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good books you can find at the library

9 Books for Those of Us Missing Libraries and Bookstores

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Katie Moench

Katie Moench is a librarian, runner, and lover of baked goods. A school librarian in the Upper Midwest, Katie lives with her husband and dog and spends her free time drinking coffee, trying new recipes, and adding to her TBR.

View All posts by Katie Moench

Like most people, I miss a lot of things right now. I miss seeing my family, going to work, roaming the grocery store on a whim, and not worrying about going outside or chatting with the neighbors when I walk my dog. One of the things I miss the most is being casually able to swing by my local library branch or bookstore on the way home from work, stopping to pick up and put down books and chat about recommendations for new reads. While we’re waiting for things to return to some semblance of normal, diving into one of the books below, all of which involve libraries or bookstore, can hopefully help you remember how much you love those places.

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Betrayed by her husband and facing life on her own with her daughter, librarian Hanna Casey returns to her mother’s home in the rural Irish town where she grew up. Driving her bookmobile around and monitoring the activities of the tiny town library gives Hanna something to do in between arguing with her mother and worrying about her adult daughter, but it’s the project of restoring her aunt’s seaside cottage that brings her back to life. Combining a beautiful setting and a cozy, country library, this book is a great escape for anyone looking for a light read.

Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

I loved Kann’s more high school/younger YA–focused book, If It Makes You Happy , so I was thrilled when a fellow Rioter pointed me toward this emerging adulthood novel. Featuring a highly relatable protagonist in Alice, library employee and lover of buffets, the book picks up right after Alice’s ex-girlfriend ends things and Alice swears off dating for good. Of course, she didn’t count on a fellow library employee and friend becoming something more! This is a sweet escape for lovers of library romance with great character development and the perfect balance of funny and swoon worthy scenes.

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

Also set in Ireland, this cozy mystery follows new librarian Israel Armstrong, who takes a job in at a damp and insulated town library only to find out that there are no books. Unraveling the missing book mystery will require him to sort through a cast of local characters both odd and charming as he tracks down the absent volumes and finds out why they were taken in the first place.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Translated by Lucia Graves

A worldwide bestseller that was translated from Spanish to English in 2004, this story-within-a-story presents the tragic love of Julian and Penelope, star-crossed lovers who disappear just before their planned elopement. When Daniel, the soon of a bookseller, discovers their tale in The Cemetery of Lost Books, he sets off to find the answer to why Penelope never came to marry Julian and why they both vanished from history before the story ended. Try this book if you’re looking for a rich and dramatic story that is also a reminder of the physical power books hold over us.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Escape to the fantasy world of The Library, dedicated to collecting important books from different realities through magic and time travel. Head librarian Irene and her assistant Kai have been dispatched to London to collect a particularly important, and dangerous, book, only to find it’s been stolen before they get there. Fighting the chaotic forces of London’s underground world, the two of them will have to rescue their book before time itself begins to unravel.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Lucy Hull is a young librarian Hannibal, Missouri. Ian Drake is a 10-year-old library patron, enrolled in anti-gay classes by his mother, who smuggles books in a knapsack to avoid being caught by his parents. When Lucy finds Drake sheltering in the library, the two of them agree to a “kidnapping” that will take them up and down the U.S., encountering fugitive fathers, ferrets, and plenty of laughs in this spirited and hilarious book that is a testament to the power of libraries to foster connections.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Bookworm Nina Hill is perfectly content with her bookstore job and her cat, finding company in characters instead of people. So, she’s in for a shock when the family of her long-lost father surfaces, turning up a collection of siblings she’s never heard of but all of whom want to get to know her. Combine that with a newly interested nemesis turned suitor, and the introverted Nina is in for quite a crazy year full of new relationships, trivia contests, and a reevaluation of exactly what she needs to have a full life.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry is having a rough time. His bookstore is in a sales slump, he’s all alone after the death of his wife, and his prized collection of Poe poems has been stolen. Then he meets 2-year-old Maya after she’s dumped on the steps of his store, and his plan to quietly fade from life takes a sharp turn. Following A.J. and Maya as they both grow into their newly found family, this book is packed with a love for books and quirky characters that will delight readers with a deep love for their own, favorite bookstore.

Love By The Books by Té Russ

Bookstore owner and literary agent romance? Check. Adorable bookstore settings? Check. Steamy and sweet romance? Check. If you’re looking for a hot romance with a strong female character, plenty of vulnerability, and a speakeasy in a bookstore (!) be sure to pick up this quick read that will both charm you and serve up plenty of heat!

Hopefully these titles can tide you over until we’re able to safely visit our favorite libraries and bookstores again! For more bookish, socially isolated fun, be sure to check out this post on how to support your local indie bookshop. 

good books you can find at the library

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The 100 Best Books of 2023, According to the New York Times

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How to Find Books in a Library

Last Updated: December 11, 2022 Approved

This article was co-authored by Kim Gillingham, MA . Kim Gillingham is a retired library and information specialist with over 30 years of experience. She has a Master's in Library Science from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, and she managed the audiovisual department of the district library center in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, for 12 years. She continues to do volunteer work for various libraries and lending library projects in her local community. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, several readers have written to tell us that this article was helpful to them, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 550,722 times.

Today, most libraries use an electronic system to catalogue books. While the process of searching for a book may vary slightly from library to library, most libraries use the Library of Congress Classification System to organize its books. To locate a book, first search the library's catalogue. Once you have identified a book, use the call number to find the book. If you cannot find your book, then ask a librarian to look for you or request an interlibrary loan if the book is missing.

Searching the Catalogue

Step 1 Find a computer in the library.

  • The computers should have the library's homepage set as the computer's homepage. If not, type the library's web address into the computer's internet browser.

Step 2 Do a title search.

  • For example, if the title of the book is “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” then type in “Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Step 3 Search by the author.

  • In addition to books, newspaper articles, conferences, and other books associated with the author will be listed. You can narrow down the search results by filtering the list. Filter the results by clicking on books.
  • You can also use this method if you are interested in other books by a specific author. Type in the author's name and look through the books that come up in the search engine.

Step 4 Do a subject search.

  • For example, if you are interested in immigration, then type in the search box “U.S. immigration,” “European immigration,” or “Mexican immigrants.”

Gathering Important Information

Step 1 Click on the book's title.

  • If you are at a public library, then you may not need to input an ID and password. If you do, then ask the librarian for this information.

Step 2 Write down the book's location, call number and status.

  • For example, write down, location: Anderson Library Stacks, call number: QA 600.K57 2009, and status: available/unavailable.
  • If your book is located in the “stacks," then it is a circulating book that can be checked out for a certain period of time like four weeks.
  • If your book is in the “reserves,” a reference book, or in the “special collections,” then it can be checked out, however, it cannot be taken outside of the library.

Step 3 Use the call number guide.

  • For example, a book starting with QA may be in the blue wing on the fourth floor.
  • Look for call number guides around the computers, or at the library's main desk.

Step 4 Look at the library's map.

  • Alternatively, you can ask a staff member to direct you to the wing.

Finding the Book

Step 1 Look at the labels at the end of the bookshelf.

  • For example, if your book's call number is QA 200.86.S50, then it falls within the range and your book is located on that shelf.

Step 2 Look at the numbers on the books' spine.

  • Since books are organized by topic using the Library of Congress Classification System, try browsing the other books in the section you found your book in if you want more books on your topic.

Step 3 Ask a staff member.

  • Tell the staff member, “I went to look for a book in the blue wing, but I could not find it. The system said it was available, but it was not there when I went to go look for it. Could you check for me?”

Step 4 Request an interlibrary loan.

  • An interlibrary loan allows you to check out a book from another library where the book is available.

Expert Q&A

Kim Gillingham, MA

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Become a Librarian

  • ↑ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huGEAW4bWoQ&feature=youtu.be
  • ↑ https://bookriot.com/how-to-find-a-book-in-the-library/
  • ↑ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PV1MWVwrkE0
  • ↑ http://guides.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/c.php?g=288334&p=1922357
  • ↑ http://guides.lib.uchicago.edu/c.php?g=297325&p=1984695
  • ↑ http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/departments/inter-library-loans/inter-library-loans-cambridge-users/making-inter-library

About This Article

Kim Gillingham, MA

To locate a book in the library, use the library’s website to search for the title, author, or keyword. Once you find the book online, click on its title to access the location, call number, and status. If the book is listed as available, find the first 2 letters of the call number on the call number guide, which will tell you what wing of the library the book is in and what floor it’s on. Then use the bookshelf labels, which are organized alphabetically, to find your book. To learn how to request a book through interlibrary loan, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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18 Best Sites to Download Free Books in 2023

Love to read? Then you'll love these places to find free books

good books you can find at the library

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Ever thought of creating a library with thousands of free books? You'd never have to spend a dime. It sounds impossible, but it's not. Free books on nearly any subject you can think of are all over the internet, ready to be downloaded, read, and shared. These are the best sites with free books covering a wide variety of subjects, anything from romance novels to computer technology manuals.

A huge quantity of books previously unavailable to the public was released starting in 2019 thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. Because of an amendment to that act, works published between 1923 and 1977 can enter the public domain 95 years after their creation. Many of the sites listed below give access to the tens of thousands of books (plus movies, songs, and cartoons) available under this act. Downloads should be free and without retribution under U.S. copyright law.

Selection includes more than just classics and Creative Commons books.

Great categorization makes finding what you love easier.

Variety of download formats.

A few areas of the site hardly ever receive updates.

Some books do cost money.

ManyBooks is one of the best resources on the web for free books in a variety of download formats. There are hundreds of titles here in all sorts of interesting genres, and they're completely free. Not all the books are classics, so if you're into other genres, this site is a good alternative to others in this list.

Unlike some sites, this one lets you browse free books by language. You can also search by author and genre. The ManyBooks Articles page is another handy way to browse their collection, with articles such as "Books Like Everest 1922" and reviews.

Downloading books requires a free account login. Then, you're then given several download options, such as EPUB, PDF, FB2, RTF, HTML, and more. They're also readable online through the site's built-in book reader.

Free Computer Books

Extensive collection of computer books.

Includes lecture notes.

Dated site design.

Everything on the site is just hyperlinks to other sites.

Lacks file format variety.

Every computer subject and programming language you can think of is represented at Free Computer Books. There are free textbooks, extensive lecture notes, and more.

Some of the genres include computer and programming languages, computer science, data science, computer engineering, Java, and networking and communications. There are also many subgenres, giving you an easy way to find the book you're after.

Free audiobooks (which can be quite pricey!).

Audiobooks are available in multiple languages.

Large collection of children's audiobooks.

Books are read by volunteers, which means performances can be hit or miss.

Many listed authors have zero books available.

If you've been looking for a great place to find free audiobooks, Librivox is a good place to start. The site has many volunteers that work to release quality recordings of classic books. All the titles here are absolutely free, which is good news for those of us who've had to pony up ridiculously high fees for substandard audiobooks.

Use the New Releases RSS feed with a feed reader service to stay on top of new additions.

Easily readable format.

You can read right in the browser.

No account necessary.

Bare bones website.

Lacks books in foreign languages (except some German).

Lacks advanced search features.

Authorama offers a good selection of free books from a variety of authors, both current and classic. They're organized alphabetically by the author’s last name and are written in HTML and XHTML, which means they're in an easily readable format. Most books here are featured in English, but there are quite a few German language texts as well.

This site offers up a good selection of high-quality, free books you can read right in your browser. These are books in the public domain, which means they're freely accessible and allowed to be distributed. In other words, you don't need to worry if you're looking at something illegal.

The website is really simple to use, but maybe too simple. The search box is basic and the only other way to find books is by scrolling through the author list. But, you don't need a user account to read these titles online, and they're all formatted nicely.

Project Gutenberg

Over 60,000 titles available.

Wide variety of formats.

Top 100 list aids discoverability.

Majority of books are in English only.

Books may not be free outside the U.S.

Project Gutenberg   is one of the largest and oldest sources for free books on the web, with over 60,000 downloadable titles available in a wide variety of formats. The vast majority are released in English, but there are other languages available.

If you already know what you're looking for, search the database by author name, title, language, or subjects. You can also check out the top 100 list to see what other people are downloading .

Google Play Books

Saves books in your online account.

Read from the website or the mobile app.

Requires a Google account.

If you like to read ebooks through Google Books, you'll be pleased to know that there's a full page of just free titles.

Google lists the top 100 free books available on Google Play through the link below. The side menu on that page lets you easily find all the free textbooks they offer, which include popular classics from authors like Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, H.G. Wells, Homer, etc.

Books you "download" through this site appear in your Google Play Books account , where they're readable online, through the mobile app, and offline if you decide to export the book to a file.

International Children's Digital Library

Large collection of international children's books.

Search by country, recently added, and more.

The books are actually just images of scanned pages.

Some pages are too large to read comfortably.

Browse through a wide selection of high-quality free books for children at International Children's Digital Library (ICDL). These are scans of physical books, so each page is a separate image you can scroll through and read.

On the home page are helpful links so you can browse the library by language, character, shape, format, genre, and more.

Archive.org's eBooks and Texts

Books across a wide variety of interests.

You can sort by view count or popularity.

Several downloading options.

It can be difficult finding exactly what you want from numerous search results.

Site can be slow to respond.

From the Internet Archive at Archive.org, eBooks and Texts is a library of fiction, popular books, children's books, historical texts, and academic books. The free books on this site span every possible interest.

You can sort these books by view count to see the most popular ones, as well as by title or date published. Another way to find free books to read here is through collections such as California Digital Library , Getty Research Institute , and Boston Public Library .

There are usually several download options if you don't want to read the book online, such as PDF, EPUB, and Kindle.

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of content available to read.

Audio available for certain texts.

User-submitted content could vary in quality.

Technically, there are no books on this site.

Wikisource is an online library of user-submitted and maintained content. While you won't technically find books on this site, there are still hundreds of thousands of pieces of content available to read, and some are in an ebook form.

Wikisource:Index is a good place to browse the options.

No login necessary.

EPUB downloads.

Browse public domain books by category.

Ad-free website.

Helpful sort and filter options.

Other parts of the site have books that cost.

Search tool mixes in paid and free books.

Feedbooks is another excellent source for public domain book downloads. There are thousands of titles that are 100% free and can be saved to your device in moments without needing a user account.

A sorting menu lets you arrange the list of books by release date or best selling, and filters help you locate books in a particular genre, in a specific language, and more.

Wikimedia Cookbook offers a worldwide collection of recipes.

Wikijunior offers books for children 12 and under.

Offers community features like a forum.

Mostly just textbooks.

Small collection.

Not all of the books are completed.

​Wikibooks   is an open collection of mostly textbooks. Subjects range from computer and engineering to science, humanities, languages, and more. Every book has a list of contents and other information to give you a solid idea of what it's about.

The best way to read these books is to download them with the PDF option.

The Featured Books and Stacks/Departments pages are good places to start if you're not sure what to browse for.

Open Library

Good alternative if Archive.org isn't working for you.

Multiple formats available.

Readers can "sponsor" books they want to see on the site.

Just pulls results from Archive.org.

Sponsoring requires a donation.

Open Library is a search tool that pulls data from Internet Archive. You might use it if Archive.org (listed above) isn't helping you find the right book. You can search hundreds of thousands of books here, and most are in multiple formats such as PDF, ePub, Daisy, and DjVu.

You can search for ebooks specifically by checking the Ebooks option after running a search.

Sacred Texts

Large collection of free religious texts.

There's a random button for when you just want to read something.

You can save pages to read offline.

Text is quite small.

Sacred Texts   contains the web’s largest collection of free books about religion, mythology, folklore, and the esoteric in general.

You can view a list of all the books by title or author. You can also browse by category or search for a book title, author, or subject. There's even a random button if you're unsure what to look for.

Every book is available online from their website. You can save each page if you want an offline version.

Good place to find presentations, infographics, and more.

Lots of non-free content.

Limited download options.

Registration required.

SlideShare is another site with both free and paid books. It's an online forum where anyone can upload a digital presentation on any subject. Millions of people utilize SlideShare for research, sharing ideas, and learning about new technologies.

The site supports documents and PDF files, all available as free downloads. You have to log in to download these books, but registration is free.

Check out SlideShare's most popular titles for an idea of what people are reading.


Diverse selection of free books.

Also offers audiobooks.

Large number of categories.

You can only download five free books a month.

Free-eBooks.net offers a wonderfully diverse variety of free books, ranging from fiction and non-fiction to textbooks, academic text, classics, and more. Some of the subcategories include advertising, parenting, humor, science, engineering, self-teaching, sci-fi classics, and poems.

You have to register for a free user account to use this site, but only five books are free, so choose wisely.

The Online Books Page

Boasts over three million books.

Dozens of different formats.

Offers partial searches.

Updates often.

Extremely basic site.

Links to downloads on other websites.

The Online Books Page, maintained by the University of Pennsylvania, lists over three million free books available for download in dozens of different formats. The site itself is pretty boring, but the long list of titles might make you a repeat visitor.

You can browse these free book downloads by new listings, author, title, subject, or serial. There's also a search tool where you can find books by running a partial author or title search.

Hundreds of free books.

Download or view online in your browser.

Must go through a "checkout" process even though they're free.

Some books need special software if you want to read them offline.

eBooks.com has a couple ways to find free books. Use the link below to access a list of a few hundred completely free eBooks that you can read online or download as an ACSM file —those are DRM protected files that work with Adobe Digital Editions (directions are available on the download page).

The other way is to browse their DRM-free eBooks . Some of these aren't free to download, but the ones that are can be downloaded and opened like any EPUB file.

You can filter these books by subject, like computers or religion, or by a number of fiction and non-fiction subcategories. There's also a format (PDF or EPUB), release date, and language filter.

Offers a wide range of reading materials, including sheet music and magazines.

One of the internet's largest sources of published content.

Mobile app available.

Free only for 30 days.

Costs $9.99/month.

Scribd offers a fascinating collection of all kinds of reading materials: books, audiobooks, documents, sheet music, magazines, and more. This is one of the web’s largest sources of published content, with literally millions of documents published every month and organized by category.

However, Scribd is only free for 30 days. Unlike other sites on this list, you have to pay every month after the trial to continue using it. The membership grants you access to the site's entire database.

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The Best Short Books to Read in 2023

good books you can find at the library

By Kenzie Bryant

The Best Short Books to Read in 2023

All products featured on Vanity Fair are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

In 2021, Gini Alhadeff, author and translator, brought a new concept to the venerable publisher New Directions. What if, she proposed, New Directions published short books—novellas or long stories—as stand-alone titles. Alhadeff wanted a place for the non-epics—the brief and the powerful—to go, so they wouldn’t be lost in the often margin-minded business of book publishing.

“It’s a terrible notion of value,” Alhadeff told me on a recent phone call, explaining why few publishers release smaller-than-average books, especially in the US. “The business of getting value for your money.” 

Alhadeff’s idea to offer a series of books one can read in a sitting, as one did as a child, arrived at New Directions in 2022. They called the selection the Storybook series to evoke that sense of childlike wonder. She would have liked to have the books made enormous—like a Dr. Suess book—but settled for a normal-size book with a hard cover and silver-colored binding. The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt, 3 Streets by Yoko Tawada, and In the Act by Rachel Ingalls are among the Storybook series’s bright, perfect offerings, and you can get all eight in a $100 bundle. 

Books: They can be short. Nothing revelatory here, but more readers (and awards committees) seem to be appreciating the fact. Annie Ernaux is an author whose spare prose earned her no less than a Nobel Prize last year. Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker prize were Claire Keegan ’s short word-of-mouth hit Small Things Like These, Alan Garner ’s 150-or-so paged Treacle Walker, and Elizabeth Strout ’s poignant speed-read Oh William! (the winner of the cohort, it should be noted for the counterweight perspective, was Shehan Karunatilaka ’s 400-page political satire The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida ). Emma Cline, she of recent The Guest fame , married poster art and short fiction in several thin tomes for Gagosian in 2021. Kate Dwyer deemed 2023 “the year of the slim volume” in Esquire . The novella may have been here all along, but perhaps there’s a fresh appeal of late. 

“I don’t think it’s a trend,” Alhadeff said. “I think it’s a necessity. People don’t have the attention and the space. What do you do if you have an hour? How wonderful to have something that is a complete story.”

Booksellers across the country have theories of their popularity too. Jill Yeomans of White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh echoes Alhadeff’s diagnosis. “In our modern age and especially since the start of the pandemic, people are having a harder time focusing, and a short, punchy novella is often just the ticket,” Yeomans said. The bookstore finds that “shorter-than-average books are an easy sell lately,” whereas moving “door-stoppers” tends to require a more recognizable author name. 

Likewise, at Birchbark, the Louise Erdrich –owned store in Minneapolis, short books are selling well. Erdrich wrote The Sentence, which is set in a fictionalized version of the store. The book’s main character creates booklists, and there in the real-life version of the store is a display that reflects one of those lists, called “Short, Perfect Novels.” It’s the most popular category, according to Hailee Kirkwood, a poet and bookseller at Birchbark.

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“I think some readers also see how big a feat it can be for an author to accomplish a lot in a smaller space than average,” said Kirkwood. “Emotional and lyric density can be quite impactful. In short fiction, every word and moment matters, and that can be an Olympic accomplishment for many authors.”

Another Birchbark bookseller, Jess Sullivan, said that they can “offer more comforting, slice-of-life stories,” where characters don’t solve all their problems, but “are less alone by the end of the book, which is needed right now.” There’s an excitement to the book’s “immediacy,” their colleague Anthony Ceballos added. 

Still, for some readers, it’s first and foremost about slamming pages. Goodreads, the Amazon-owned book rating site, hosts a reading challenge every year. The site publishes its own lists of short books to help readers reach their objective. “ 88 Short New Books to Help You Crush Your 2022 Reading Challenge ,” reads one such headline. BookTok , too, can be helpful for quicks recommendations, especially if quantity is one’s goal. 

A desire for quantity is not necessarily a lamentable thing. In the core years of the pandemic, a popular small talk refrain was “I can’t read any more.” Short books can help. Jules Rivera, marketing coordinator at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, said that, “People read for all sorts of reasons, but above all they read to feel accomplished in completing something. You just finished a story! And another! Once you get into that rhythm the easier it is to form the habit.” (Rivera also draws a connection between the recent interest in slimmer books with an ease of travel, which especially makes sense for a readership that uses public transportation or have arrived at the store from international destinations. Slimmer books, which are also lighter books, fit easily into bags, which for that matter, have been getting smaller themselves. But that’s another story for another section of this magazine). 

So what if you have to trick yourself back into a habit? You can still come across something exceptional—or many things that are exceptional—on your way back to the practice of reading. As Alhadeff told me, “If it’s a great book, it’s going to be no less of an important experience than if you read War and Peace. ” 

And with short books, you can have the added pleasure of easily rereading a perfect story. “Not that you can't reread War and Peace ,” Alhadeff said. “but it’s more of a proposition. It’ll take your summer.”

Below, find a selection of short books published largely as stand-alones recommended by Vanity Fair staff members, plus some rapid-fire recommendations from the booksellers interviewed for this piece at the end. It’ll take your winter—and your spring if you choose to reread some—to get through them all.

good books you can find at the library

‘Autobiography of Red’ by Anne Carson

Autobiography of Red , Anne Carson

Geryon is a young, red, winged monster trying to find his place in the world. From an island somewhere in the Atlantic to the streets of Buenos Aires to the mountains of Peru, Geryon dutifully records his autobiography—and the evolution of his relationship with the charming (if curt) Herakles. You won’t need a history degree to wrap yourself inside Carson’s stirring interpretation of Stesichoros’s fragmented Geryoneis poem, but you might need a tissue. —Mark Alan Burger

good books you can find at the library

‘The English Understand Wool’ by Helen DeWitt

The English Understand Wool, Helen DeWitt  

The English Understand Wool takes an hour or so to read and is one of the most wholly satisfying, original narratives I’ve read in awhile. It’s funny and weird and so, so sharp. It features one of the most interesting characters I’ve met in fiction. I don’t want to say too much about what it’s about because I went into it blind and came out happy that I got to do that. Enjoy!  —Kenzie Bryant

good books you can find at the library

‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood

In 1960s Southern California, the aging, closeted professor George reflects on life, love, and loss following the sudden death of his partner, Jim. Isherwood paints a portrait that is lush, wry, and—despite our curmudgeonly narrator’s best efforts—decisively life-affirming, one that pairs excellently with Tom Ford’s sumptuous cinematic adaptation. —Mark Alan Burger

good books you can find at the library

‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

I discovered Jansson’s The Summer Book after its 50th anniversary brought a fresh onslaught of appreciation. I’m so glad that happened. It’s a book about a grandmother and granddaughter sharing an island for the summer, and it’s by the author of a popular children’s book franchise about friendly trolls that resemble upright hippopotamuses. Based on these facts, I'd expect a cozy tale full of sentimentality, but that’t not Jansson and that’s not this story. The book is brittle and brooding, but in a gracious way. It’s not padded with mush, just wisdom that feels vital and human in a naturally precarious world. Jansson’s others— Fair Play, The True Deceiver, more—are just as short and just as worth a read. —Kenzie Bryant

good books you can find at the library

‘The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die’ by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

Eighteen-year-old Somlata is a new addition to the Mitras, having just married into the traditional, dynastic family. One day, while wandering the grounds of the once-beautiful mansion, Somlata is caught by surprise by the ghost of her bitter great aunt-in-law, and the chaos begins. This short book is a funny and frenetic take on the relationships women of different generations have to their family and their households. —Kathleen Creedon

good books you can find at the library

‘A Month in the Country’ by J.L. Carr

A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr  

I really love to yell about this short, tender story of a war veteran restoring a fresco in an English village’s small church in the summer of 1920. It’s such a beautiful story. —Kenzie Bryant

good books you can find at the library

‘Beneath the Wheel’ by Hermann Hesse

Beneath the Wheel, Hermann Hesse  

Hesse brings his point of view on the intersection of traditional Eastern and Western society to this story of a young scholar who slowly grows disillusioned by the world of academia. As he falls in love with a fellow classmate and strays off his rigid life path, you can’t help but draw similar emotional parallels to our society’s most recent collective pandemic years, though this story was published in 1906. A necessary trigger warning for this recommendation is that it depicts suicidal thoughts and death. — Margaret Lin

good books you can find at the library

‘Open Water’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water, Caleb Azumah Nelson

A story of love and destiny, Open Water is for hopeless romantics. It follows two young artists who meet in a pub in London. They have similar backgrounds—both Black, both students at schools where they felt they didn’t belong, both feeling rejected by their city. And then they fall in love. They’re left to navigate the effects of masculinity, vulnerability, and racism—which challenges the very connection that brought them together. —Kathleen Creedon

good books you can find at the library

‘Sleepless Nights’ by Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights

This novella was Hardwick’s third and was published when the author was 63. It’s nontraditional in that it jumps around from fragment to fragment, touching on this or that, and coalescing into a story rather than plodding linearly toward one—much like the mind revisiting a life during, yes, a sleepless night. —Kenzie Bryant

good books you can find at the library

‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ by Miranda July

No One Belongs Here More Than You , Miranda July

This short collection of short stories plays out like transmissions from a parallel if slightly askew universe. Its denizens are both prickly and flirty, intricate and awkward, yet they all vibrate with cosmic kind of desire—for connection, understanding, or recognition in a sea of strangers. Strange though it may seem, July’s svelte prose lands closer to home than you might expect. —Mark Alan Burger

good books you can find at the library

‘Giovanni's Room’ by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room is another one that’s enjoyed a reissuing and revisiting of late. It’s a complex, vivid, and devastating tale, and one that echoes Henry James as much as Oscar Wilde. It lives among the great queer works, and though tragedy strikes on a couple fronts in it, a lot of beauty does too. —Kenzie Bryant

good books you can find at the library

‘Belly Up’ by Rita Bullwinkel

Belly Up , Rita Bullwinkel  

If you’re also reading spine-tingling horror to process our nerve-popping realities, Bullwinkel’s short story collection needs to be added to the top of your TBR list. Her short story on two teen girls who obsess over cannibalism gives a whole new meaning to girl dinner. —Margaret Lin

good books you can find at the library

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan

This one was on the list of many of the booksellers’ bestsellers, and a favorite of mine. It’s the story of Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and father of five daughters, in the weeks before Christmas 1985, in County Wexford, Ireland. The way a Keegan story unfolds is like it’s happening to you, with a sense of tension and the suspicion of high stakes. Her prose is crisp and transportive, and full of a mastery of her homeland’s language and context. —Kenzie Bryant

good books you can find at the library

‘The Wife’ by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife , Meg Wolitzer

The Wife is technically 219 pages, but you’ll tear right through them. This is the platonic ideal of a trip novel: You’re traveling to Helsinki with Joan Castleman and her obnoxious famous novelist husband, but you’re also going back in time through the past 40 years of their seemingly bohemian-to-bourgeoise-pipeline marriage. Amid this delicious, cutting excavation, there is an almighty twist that I still think about on a weekly basis. No one writes about artistic ambition like Wolitzer, and as The Wife will remind you forever, no partnership—domestic or otherwise—is ever as what it seems. —Delia Cai

Below, more recommendations from booksellers quoted above:

White Whale Bookstore, Pittsburgh

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers August Blue by Deborah Levy

Birchbark Books, Minneapolis

The All of It by Jeannette Haien Sleep Donation by Karen Russell Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li The White Book by Han Kang The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill Train Dreams by Denis Johnson The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Books Are Magic, Brooklyn (with descriptions from Jules Rivera)

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (for the gross, horror, psychological-thriller lovers) Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun (for the crime-solvers) Sarahland by Sam Cohen (for the funny, queer, absurd-surrealism lovers) What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (for the magical realism lovers) Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva (for lovers of Selena Quintanilla and poetry)

More Great Stories From Vanity Fair

After Barbie, Greta Gerwig Has No Plans to Rest

Inside the Real Housewives Reckoning That’s Rocking Bravo

The Secret Warnings That Predated the Pandemic

Money, Murder, Fur: Inside the Frenchie Revolution

Trump’s “Body Guy” and His Massive Military Gambit

The Untold Story of Tucker Carlson’s Ugly Exit From Fox News

The Frat-Boy Crime Ring That Swept the South

From the Archive: Intimations of Murder (2000)

Kenzie Bryant

Staff writer, royal watch.

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