What do you do when you’re looking for a new book to read? Maybe you log in to your Amazon account and see which books appear on the homepage or in the “recommended for you” section. Or if you’re a little more old fashioned you might actually get in the car and head out to Barnes & Noble to browse its selection and choose from one of the prominently displayed tables or shelves up front.
What you may not know is that those spots of prominence were not selected by a savvy group of bookworms behind the scenes at Amazon or B&N. Both of these businesses sell placement options to the highest bidder. Even the search engine at Amazon is influenced by publisher payments.
At your local independent bookstore, however, the staff favorites section is still just that, selections made by the staff, the aspiring writers, musicians, marketers, book-enthusiasts and college students who spend every day immersed in those books. Through unpacking, shelving, organizing, those bookstore workers have the wisdom and knowledge that comes from interacting with those books every day. They’ve discussed them with co-workers and customers, and those are the factors that influence which books they turn face out, place on the display table and recommend to customers, not a contract that says which books should be displayed on the front shelf for how long in exchange for compensation.
When you ask these booksellers for recommendations, they’ll actually have a conversation with you to figure out what you like, perhaps combining your interest in fantasy and sports to recommend Game Changer by Margaret Peterson Haddix or suggesting D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel because of your recent fascination with Freudian psychology and the Holocaust. Amazon, on the other hand, remains fixated on all those plays you bought for your American theater class three years ago, suggesting Streetcar Named Desire and the entire August Wilson canon instead of something you might actually be interested in reading outside the classroom.
As a former bookseller and a professional writer, reader and journalist, here are my book recommendations, based on my recent reading activity and completely free of monetary influence and spanning what I hope is a wide variety of interest and genres. Enjoy!
Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
A fascinating nonfiction book about a double murder by two self-described Mormon fundamentalists and the history of the LDS church by the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. No one does narrative nonfiction like Jon Krakauer. An especially good read for writers of nonfiction.
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
An epic historical saga that invents a story for real-life abolitionist and women’s rights activist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The book also follows fictional slave Hetty whose story provides the other half to this gripping antebellum novel.
Bleachers, John Grisham
As a writer and editor often focused on sports, I find it very interesting to read sports-themed fiction. This short 2004 Grisham novel takes a different approach to the classic football story, featuring in-game action only in the form of occasional flashbacks as a small Texas town mourns the death of their long-time football coach who was both loved and hated.
Orange Is the New Black, Piper Kerman
Fans of the show especially will enjoy reading this memoir based on the author’s time in a women’s prison. Educational, emotional and entertaining, OITNB works just as well on the page as it does on screen and is worth reading before or after seeing the show.
Want to find out more about Amazon’s recommendations and placement policies? Check out this article from the New Yorker.