When you peruse a regular bookstore, you see titles that are brand new—just written, just printed, just shipped in. Any titles that are a bit older are there because they sold well enough to earn a reprint. And they deserve it. But there are titles out there that just missed the mark, or maybe got a bad review from someone influential, that are undoubtedly worth a read. How does one find titles like these?
Blog posts online—book reviews and the like—are excellent resources for finding the books by theme, date, or style, but the internet doesn’t quite have the charm of browsing a bookstore. That and good luck finding lists of books that weren’t loudly promoted or highly reviewed. So…where does one find hidden gems?
You probably already know. It’s the *used* bookstore: that beautiful labyrinth of books that have already been broken-in and dog-eared and loved. Used bookstores are one of the only places you can still find a steady influx of obscure treasures. And, sure, all those titles are likely available on Amazon, but what’s the likelihood of casually scrolling across a truly unusual title online?
Yet, it’s tough to tell which book deserves your attention, isn’t it? Just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s good. And just because a book is good doesn’t mean it was an international award winner. This article serves two purposes. It will tell you what to keep an eye out for while sifting through shelves of strange books. It’s also a list of titles and authors you’ve likely never heard of for when you’re feeling especially adventurous in your next book choice. Either way, you might find yourself reading something extraordinary.
The Reconfigured Collection of a Vintage Series
As noted above, if a book is purchased often enough, it merits a reprint. If it continues to sell, it continues to be reprinted (you still see Stephen King’s Carrie on the shelves, after all these years). However, in distant decades, some books were well-received but the market for speculative fiction was too immature for them to make it far. What you’re looking for in this case is a book that is the collected works of a particular author or series. Prime examples: Cities in Flight by James Blish, originally written in 1970; or, The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, originally written in 1946. These books will generally be rather thick (because they contain more than one volume) and are also often printed by a lesser-known publishing house (because if they were printed by Random House or Macmillan they would be widely circulated).
How do you know these books are worth your while? Because they were reprinted. Not in the way that Jules Verne or Ray Bradbury have been reprinted, but someone at a publishing company said, “You know what? These books were a hit in 1970, we should try and revive them.” This would also include titles such as, The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich or Russian Science Fiction of 1969. Don’t let dates past your birthday or names you never heard of scare you away.
A Seasoned Author Sans Award
One way to know a decent book is to check on how many previous books the author has put out. If you’ve got a book by someone who has already published ten books, they know what they’re doing. That’s not to say some debut novels aren’t phenomenal, but you’ve got a better chance of happening upon a keeper if the author has a good amount of experience.
Here’s an interesting question: Can you name a modern author (in the SFF genre) who has written more than ten books but has never been nominated for an award? They’re out there, no doubt, but by the time an author has written that many books, you can trust your entertainment to them. The hang-up is that everyone remembers the award winners and not so much the nominees. If you find a book you’re not sure about, but their author bio says ‘nominee’ give them a try. Even if it doesn’t, ten plus books is nothing to sneeze at. You may stumble up on the likes of Genevieve Valentine (Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti) or Jonathan L. Howard (Johannes Cabal).
Enchanting Cover Art
You not only can, but should, judge a book by its cover. The old saying that warns against this comes from days when covers were abstract, vague, or even bare. These days, covers are specially designed to reflect the content of the novel itself. The cover is what makes the sale. Browsing a bookstore means browsing covers. The cover art will tell you if you’re holding an action-packed magic thriller like Bad Magic by Stephan Zielinski or a slipstream counter-reality stroll like White Apples by Jonathan Carroll.
Every time you place your bookmark and set the book down, the cover will meet your eyes. When you finish the book and you’re mulling over the intricacies and nuances, the cover will help set the prose in your memory. So if you find a cover that speaks to you, don’t pass it up.
The most instinctive emotion is often the most trustworthy! And the best finds are the ones that make you say, “What on holy Earth is this manifestation?” That’s how you know they’re really unique and unusual. And yes, admittedly, that might not always be a good thing. But in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, the weirder the better. In this situation, do your due diligence and check the book reviews on Amazon or Good Reads (but don’t you dare buy on those platforms while standing in a small, local business).
Maybe you’ll find yourself holding an early-century tome of experimental fiction, printed in the colors of flesh and blood with visually stylized text, and based on what happens when the inhabitants of flatland start rearranging DNA. (Vas: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula, 2002).
Or, you could find yourself holding a late-1980s science fictional rendezvous with alternate realities and political intrigue, about a man who stumbles into a cold war-era government experiment that yields something dark in a parallel earth. Books like this are fascinating because they are a glimpse into the future of the past. (Alternities by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, 1988)
You just. Never. Know