There are lists, oh yes, lots of lists. Goodreads lists and Amazon lists and everyone's favorites lists. Books categorized by emotion or geography or style. Pulitzer Prize winners - I've read most of these now - and National Book Award winners and Pen winners and Booker winners, those are all good sources. Oprah books. City Reads. All excellent sources.
Lots of book group lists now, if you want to read what everyone else is reading, and sometimes that works because you will find many great books there. Although, also many heavily promoted books that appeal to a broad audience. Not the same.
NPR frequently shares their finds. You can spend a year reading Nancy Pearl's recommendations in one of her Book Lust books, great resource [especially Book Lust to Go.] Europa publishes new translations of fantastic European writers and reprints those out of print, you can read well just reading their titles.
Facebook and the Twitter-sphere is loaded with self-published authors [myself included] paddling through muddy waters to reveal a daring piece of writing, and there are lots of book review bloggers who promote books [myself included]. No shortage of lists, but so much so, now the lists too are overwhelming.
What's a reader to do?
Word of mouth. In the end, that's the source. Always has been. What are you reading? we ask a friend who also reads good stuff. What's interesting, we ask at the local independent bookstore, still the best source for discovery. What's better than browsing? Not every good read, hardly in fact, are new. The back stacks at the library hold a myriad of books that have languished for years for lack of interest, but not lack of greatness.
Or, you meet an interesting person [in this case a lovely well-read man] who tells you about a writer you never heard of: Stefan Zweig. "Letter from an Unknown Woman" he recommends, the title story of a collection of four long stories. 1922. The writing is spectacular. Crisp, sharp, heart-wrenching. Wow. Why have I not found him sooner? [The same might be said of the man.] Then you discover that the new Wes Anderson film is based on writings by the same author. Synchronicity.
The same man [who has quickly detected the way to my heart] brings me a book by Alexander Theroux. "Primary Colors." [No, not the politico.] Philosophical essays on color. I've read brother Paul Theroux, but not the sibling. Elegant writing. Wow! Where might I have found these books? Not on any lists I know.
Have I mentioned lately "Evidence of Things Unseen" by Marianne Wiggins? A truly great novel, short-listed for the most prestigious awards, still hardly known. Recommended highly. Or have you read "The Water is Wide" Pat Conroy's first autobiographical tale of teaching at a school for impoverished black kids on an island in the South? Gorgeous prose. Great story.
Buried in the most esoteric lists and on many Amazon pages and in the tweets of excellent authors with much to say, there are hidden gems, and we cannot find them without a nod from another reader. In reading, like most things, we get by with a little help from our reading friends.