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Insights from Hawthorne Publishing

New Library: No way to know what are “good books”

During the winter, the management part of the company moves to Florida.

Here we can do editing, book planning and marketing and decision-making in the land of the sun while an assistant staffs the office and ships books.

Bonita Springs, Florida, has a beautiful new library in the center of town, three stories of yellow and white modernity. All new electronic servants monitor many of the services: drop off books in the electronic drive-through drawer on the front of the building and your transaction is instantly registered book by book and a receipt delivered right then.

Inside, gone are the friendly librarian desks with experienced people greeting you, exchanging greetings and comments on books you or they liked. A carrel stands, cold and mechanical but efficient, and can help you return and process your choice of books. True, a lady still exists over in the corner for the non-technical among us.

Upstairs are the new books on one fairly long shelf, and many avid readers are picking them up and looking at the offerings. Small rooms and tables outside allow for computer researching and daily updating for individuals and display of large-type books and DVDs. I’m only interested now in old-fashioned print books to read for edification and entertainment.

But what’s this? For three weeks the new books on that shelf I’m looking at seem to be about the same. Here are the ones I took out three weeks ago and the others, narrow-minded reader that I am, I have rejected.

The stacks of older books are ample, off-center back in the back of this second-floor span, but again, how to know what would be a “good read?” How does this quest for a really good book operate, how to find something you can’t put down? Or even go through with satisfaction? Other readers browsing the shelves and stacks seem to be having the same wonderment: among these thousands, won’t anybody recommend a book that’s a good read?

The first point to make is that a “good read” involves individual taste. You may not like the book I do. Still, consensus does seem to play a part for American readers: they can spot talented writing and a good story and they share their recommendations with friends and others.

Of course, there are ways to determine what’s going to be a good read when new books come out. “Goodreads” and other book review sites online tell you what books readers have appreciated in the past two or three years.

Book clubs research titles and reviews to pick books their members will enjoy reading and discussing.

The New York Times Bestseller List lists both non-fiction and fiction books; these titles reflect popularity by sales.

Perhaps in the stacks I’ll find something attractive. I decide to move through the thousands of those older books on the fiction shelves, alphabetically organized and look for authors whose names I know, whose books I have enjoyed in the past. Here are Elizabeth George and Ann Perry, P.D. James and John O’Hara, J.D. Salinger and John Updike. Perhaps I’ll read the first page—does it sound familiar? I can find a couple of books.

You don’t have to go only to the local library to get a good book, of course. One may visit the next-to-new shops. Goodwill will have hundreds of used books. But here’s the problem there: they are amazingly similar and loaded with “pop” authors: Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Sue Grafton, James Patterson. Everybody buys or receives these books often as hardcovers, reads them—and gets rid of them. They languish on the shelves of the pool house in this condo we rent.

So after the presentation of this problem I perceive, what suggestions do I have to give to librarians in the new place here? How about “Librarian’s choice” each week: ten books the staff votes on that they loved reading. It could focus on new but include the old too. I know that many libraries do this and it gives us a head start. Even label or break the librarians’ choice lists into categories: mysteries, romances, non-fiction. Post little mini-reviews by the staff.

Post the New York Times bestseller lists and other good lists and star which books the library has. Make reserving books easy and accessible.

In these modern digital libraries, the old close relationships between workers and patrons could be diminishing. When you are saluting and manipulating a machine, punching and clicking, you are not interacting with a person, presumably a book lover as you are, with whom to converse and share perceptions. It can make the library experience cold. Knowing what the librarians themselves read creates a little bond.

Maybe this and other new libraries could have “favorite reads” book clubs similar to the old summer reading clubs for kids. A long list of favorites of patrons and librarians, registration to join the “best books” reading club, and prizes or a tea party for people who read them all.

I expect that is happening somewhere, maybe several places. Other people are surely thinking about it.

I do know that I can’t scrabble through every single volume in that gorgeous hunk of concrete to find the gone “must reads.”

Nancy Niblack Baxter is senior editor of Hawthorne Publishing. Click back to the site to find her books.