The Charming Randomness of Finding New Books

My new favorite author was discovered via thievery

Time To Read: 4 mins | December 20, 2016

The way a book comes to you can be just as special as the words on the page. In the modern era of digital titles, when millions of options are available without getting your lazy ass out of bed, picking up a paperback by an unknown author is increasingly rare.

Surprisingly, it’s not all bad news for the book printing industry – reports of paperbacks’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In the first half of 2016, sales of hardcopy books rose 8.8% compared to the same period the year before, while digital sales dropped 20% in the same stretch.

So readers still want to hold paper. My problem, however, is knowing what to pick up when I don’t have Amazon and Google Ads showering me in recommendations. If I’m in a Barnes and Noble – twice every year, maybe – I will peruse options for exactly as long as it takes to finish my Starbucks. If I order regular coffee, that’s twenty minutes. Iced coffee ends up being closer to five. Neither is usually long enough to track down something I’ll love.


Or I can lay on the couch in my underwear with the TV on, a bag of Chips Ahoy Chewy cookies on my chest, and choose my next novel by mindlessly following Kindle’s recommendations.

You see my point? The latter is obviously preferable – if you carry a personal carton of cookies around a bookstore, people tend to stare – but it locks you in a loop. I read the same authors over and over, or cycle through the most popular titles in a single niche genre. Discovering something totally fresh in the age of online advertising can be tricky.

Thus my truly new books, written by authors I’d never have discovered alone about topics I wouldn’t have even thought to search for, all came in paperback form — and all with seemingly random delivery methods. A friend accidentally left a copy of Pete Hamill’s Forever in Tulum – I ripped through the 600+ pages in seventy-two hours. Station 11, a post-apocalyptic story with multiple narrators sharing cleverly interwoven lives, was handed to me by someone who’d just finished it and didn’t want to carry the weight on their next flight. Never in my life would I have bought that book: the author’s called Emily St. John Mandel, which I find far too pretentious a name.

And then there’s Bill Bryson. I discovered Bryson by thievery.

The book was just sitting on the resort’s shelf. A Short History of Nearly Everything was a witty enough title that tickled my nerd bone, and even though the damned paperback weighs more than a Ford Bronco, I had nothing else to do that day. Life, the universe, and everything seemed like a good time filler.

Within a couple hours, I was hooked. But it was going to take about fifty more years to finish thing (in case you’ve not caught on, this is a really, really long book) and I was leaving the following morning. I might have simply asked an employee for the novel, but then they might have said no.


Remember kids: ask forgiveness, not permission.

So, when no one was looking, I slipped it in my backpack. I did place a short note on the bookshelf, pinned under Ben Hur, apologizing for what I did. I thought the resort manager may think that a charming gesture, but more likely than not, a non-English speaking cleaning lady tossed it out the next morning.

Now, I didn’t read in college, because beer pong didn’t require manuals. So there’s a very good chance everyone else who went to Dartmouth knows who Bill Bryson is – he’s a wildly popular author, and lived in the school’s town, Hanover, for ages. But since an esteemed middle-aged writer didn’t frequent the same douche canoe frat parties I went to, I hadn’t heard of him.

I’d been missing out. He’s all dry English wit, a subtle ironic humor without being pessimistic. I spent too many hours for too many consecutive days buried in A Short History. It was one of those obsessed stretches certain types of people fall into sometimes, when you’re addicted to a pet project or video game: your hygiene tends to slip, you wear nothing but pajamas, and suddenly, seeing sunlight doesn’t seem all that important. You tell yourself you’ll go outside next week.

About a third of the way through the book, I realized this guy had been living a short mile from where I spent my college years. Is it still FOMO if you already missed out? And then, towards the end of Short History, when I’d officially gone two days too long without bathing, I finally decided to investigate what else my new crush had published:

Turns out he’s a travel writer. Hashtag swoon.

He’s published somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 books over 30 years, and I promptly purchased half of them. I’m still not through them – I’ve finally struck a balance between reading and showering — but Bryson’s without a doubt become my go-to entertainment when in need of inspiration, or simply something to pass the time on the toilet.

And all this started with petty theft.


photo: view from my balcony in flores, guatemala. not the worst.

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.

Leave a Comment


  1. Jolaine Parmenter

    I’ve got a couple of his books that I’ve had for so many years, but never read them. You’ve inspired me!

  2. Anniesaurus Rex

    I got as far as “Chewy Chips Ahoy” and had to stop, I’m sorry. I’ll have to come back to this one when I’m emotionally ready to forgive you.

  3. Holly

    Ah, you HAVE read Bill Bryson! You reminded me of him from the get-go…..

  4. Angie O

    You should check out his book about the history of the English language – ‘Mother Tongue’. Also ‘Home’ is good too. Learn alot while chuckling along the way!
    Enjoying your blog and interested to check out the books you’ve recommended. Happy Travels!

  5. Angie O

    I have a question for you: why not move to a Kindle or other e-reader? They make so much more sense for travellers covering a lot of ground logistically, in terms of carrying many books and not having to work too hard to get your hands on a new one.
    Started Station 11 based on your review but not sure I’m going to continue.

  6. Jess

    Your blog has been my “temporary Bill Bryson obsession” of the last few days. I identify SO hard with mostly everything you write (not that I’ve had your crazy adventures, but I also think it’s ridiculous to date someone that doesn’t know that even though Lily Potter’s parents were muggles, she was a badass witch). Then you go and hit my book-nerd core. I read A Short History of Nearly Everything in college and loved it. Thanks for sharing and keep living the dream!


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