By Saikat Basu
Sometimes you might remember a book you read by its jacket, and sometimes by the actions of an obscure character. However, rather frustratingly, you often cannot remember the author or the title.
I am sure you are thinking back to the moments when you wracked your brain trying to remember that book or cite a quote you had loved. Book amnesia has thwarted us all at some time or another.
If you are a book lover of any kind, expect to see (or ask) a question of this type one day:
“Do you remember a mystery book that had something about a puppet master as a murderer?”
As a book lover, it’s your duty to jump in and save someone from his or her failing memory.
Tracking down that long-lost book is like embarking a treasure hunt. In the old days, you could have asked the friendly seer called “the librarian”. Whereas, in this, the digital age, the internet is the informational entity that has even your local librarian beat.
Here are some tips to help you find a book without knowing its title or author. And, unlike the librarian, the internet is always ready to help.
Let’s Start with an Everyday Search Engine
When you can’t (or even if you can) remember the name of book, author, or the characters in it, the search engine should be your first port of call. What is true for any generic search is true when trying to find a book without knowing the name and the author too… it’s all about the keywords.
In case of a forgotten title or author, you have to remember anything you can use from the book. It could be the name of a character, a line of dialog, or even basic plot points. The more specific the phrase, the better the result. All rules of a normal search apply (for instance, for exact searches put it in quotes).
Now Try Google Book Search
The difference is that the reference page displayed for your search result also contains extra information like various covers, table of content, common terms and phrases, and popular passages from the book. You can view sample pages and check if this is the book you were searching for. Also, you can search within a book.
Use the Advanced Google Search Page with filters like subject, publisher, language, publication date, ISBN and ISSN numbers (you aren’t going to remember these two!).
Experiment with keywords and wildcard operators to grab a clue. Even if you do not find the book, you might come across a reference which could then lead you to the answer.
Other Catalogs You Can Use for Your Book Search
There are some search engines which are more specialized.
BookFinder is an advanced search engine (Click on Show more options) which taps into the inventories of over 100,000 booksellers worldwide. Try a keyword search or, if you can recall it, restrict your query by the publication year.
WorldCat is the world’s largest network of library content and services. You can search the worldwide database of 72,000 libraries in 170 countries. Search for a book and then locate it at a nearby library. Membership of the library allows you to check out the item online. Try the Advanced Search with unique filters like Audience and Languages.
Peek into WorldCat Genres (or Fictional Finder) which helps you browse through fiction genres for hundreds of titles, authors, subjects, characters, locations, and more, ranked by popularity in the world’s libraries.
The Library of Congress (LOC) is the world’s largest library and today it also hosts a huge digital collection. An online book search through its catalog of 17 million records on books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources shouldn’t take too long. And to top it all, the LOC has a friendly Ask A Librarian form for queries.
Also, check out the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) search tool which is another Library of Congress utility.
Wade Through an Amazon Search
Amazon started life as an online book store. It remains the leading category by sales with millions of titles in stock at any one time. If Amazon doesn’t sell the book you are looking for, then it’s probably no longer available (or a figment of your imagination!) The basic search bar can get you close to the book with a keyword. But the real spadework can be done by Amazon’s Advanced Book Search.
Amazon does not have an official list of advanced search operators. But it does display a few search tips on the above page. The API documentation also lists a few power searches you can try out for your book. Go through the documentation by clicking on Next. For instance, experimenting with the [title-begins] keyword could return close hits.
And if all fails, then do a site search with Google. You might just get lucky.
E.g. “Rachel Childs”+journalist site:amazon.com
Search Inside the Book
Amazon not only matches your keywords to titles and authors, but also on every word inside a book. You can discover if this is the exact book you are looking for by clicking the Look Inside link and going through the preview pages. Use the Search Inside This Book field to look for sentences, key phrases, and even citations.
Ask for Help from an Online Community
Goodreads is an Amazon subsidiary. As such, you can expect the knowledge base to be just as vast. This social network for book nerds has discussion boards on a variety of topics.
You can go to any genre-specific group and ask for help. But it might be worth trying these two first:
Barnes and Noble is a well-known bookseller. This group was created with the express purpose of helping readers hunt down their favorite books. It isn’t as busy like Goodreads but could be worth a visit.
The appropriately named BookSleuth is another good hunting ground for forgotten titles. Use the community forum that is organized by genre, and provide as many details as you can for the members to help you out.
Last But Not Least: Social Networks
By now, you should have got either the book or your memory back. If not, your search has probably reached a frustrating hurdle because the book-loving masses haven’t been able to rescue you yet. It’s time to broaden your scope with an SOS on your social network of choice.
The social network isn’t only for finding long lost friends. You can also call upon the wisdom of the crowd to help you find that elusive book. Your own social circle might be too limited, so broaden your search using book clubs.
Mark Zuckerberg started A Year of Books, and now it has close to 800,000 followers. Even smaller public groups like Books are worth a try. You just have to shout above the noise.
The Q&A site could be the largest gathering of “experts” outside Facebook and Twitter. The best thing about Quora is that you can expect a quality response. Take the answer below for example:
A potpourri of 168 Q&A communities makes up Stack Exchange. Stack Overflow might be the most popular with programmers but there are niche communities for Ebooks and Literature. Then, you can also go into a genre specific community and drop a question. Sci-Fi and Fantasy is popular.
You couldn’t have thought of a better name for a subreddit on books than Tip of My Tongue. Just scan your eyes down the solved answers with the green tag to understand the power of collective memory. Also, try other subreddits like What’s That Book, Books, and printSF when you can only remember the cover.
It’s Time to Find That Long-Lost Book!
The web relies on the kindness of strangers. The good thing is that book lovers are everywhere and the fraternity is amazingly co-operative. We can always find them closeted together in some group or community.
So, the next time you have a memory blackout try to recall any vague detail of the book.
Go back in time to remember any physical feature or illustration. Try to bring up some associated memories – what were you doing when you were reading that book? How old were you? Was it a gift or did you borrow it?
Are you still looking for a long-lost book? Did this article help your search in any way? When you’re searching for a book from your childhood who do you ask first – your librarian or the collective power of the internet? Please let us know in the comments below!