How To

How to Find a Book Using a Vague Description

Emily Wenstrom

Staff Writer

By day, Emily Wenstrom is a content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstorm, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.. Her Chronicles of the Third Realm War series includes Mud (#1), Tides (#2), Rain (#0), and more to come. Follow her on Twitter @ejwenstrom.

We all have those books. The ones that nestled deep within our hearts, left brilliant flashes of impression in our memories, left quotes that shaped us stuck in the crevices of our brains.

And yet. You just can’t. Remember. That. Title.

Not for your life.

One of the most magical things about books is the way they stick with us. But sometimes, the way they stick with us is, well, a little peculiar. There’s books where I remember the mood it impressed upon me, or the setting and moment in history it took me to, the distinct chemistry between certain characters…sometimes it’s nothing more than the image on its cover or a particular quote (which I may or may not have managed to paraphrase over the years).

So what are we supposed to do when you want to recommend it to a friend or revisit that moment in your reading life?

Don’t worry, this is the digital age, and there’s all sorts of resources and networks out there to help you track down that book. This is how to find a book using a vague description, a few scattered memories, or other tidbits.

1. What Do You Remember?

Every little thing you remember about this book could be an invaluable clue in your hunt. Capture as many of those little gems from your memory that you can!

What age group was the book for? What did the cover look like? Do you have any of the characters’ names? The themes or distinct plot points? A quote? Was the author’s name initials or start with the letter C? When did you read it? Where did you read it?

If you read it on the bus to and from school in 8th grade, that can go a long way to hone in on a timetable for the book’s release. If you read it in high school for English class, that also can help direct your search — perhaps it’s more likely to be a known classic, for example, or could be found on a list of popular assigned readings.

2. Try Keyword Translation Tools

Once you have all the details you can capture ready, your best bet is going to be to start turning those pieces of memory into searchable keyword phrases. Because, well, how do we find anything on the internet? We run a search.

For example, there’s a book that my siblings and I absolutely loved when we were kids. I can see the brown ink illustrations vividly in my mind, but for whatever reason I constantly blank out on the title, and I never find it on lists. So whenever my friends have a kid I need to offer a gift for, I end up running this search:

Children’s book ducks in New York

And Make Way for Ducklings is the first result — bingo, exactly the book I was looking for, even though the book is definitely set in Boston. Whoops! If you were looking for an another actual book of New York ducks, other top results include A Duck in New York City and “Bette Midler to Write Kid’s Book About NYC Mandarin Duck.”

Luckily, when it comes to hunting for a book, even Google is much more than general search. There are many options available to you for this exercise, and they’re all dedicated specifically to the bookish hunt.

Here are a few that come with high recommendations:

Google Books Library Project: It’s Google, but it exclusively searches books from its extensive database of scanned works. So think covers, tables of content, indexes, etc.

BookFinder: Specifically designed as a database to find any book, even out of print! To search with keywords, select the advanced options prompt under the author and title bars.

WorldCat & WorldCat Genres: 10,000-plus libraries at your fingertips. If that’s a little overwhelming, the genres site lets you limit your searches to books tagged within a specific genre category.

Library of Congress: Run a keyword search or browse through the database of the United States Library of Congress.

3. Tap Into Bookish Communities

Sometimes a very human memory requires a very human mind to find the answer. Memory, after all, is a weird thing, and if that character you remember as Harold was actually named Harvey, a search using the keyword Harold is unlikely to get you where you’re trying to go. But another person who can use the context of all you remember about a book for associations just might be able to connect the dots. Especially a person with vast bookish knowledge. The internet, of course has options for you.

What’s the Name of that Book?: This aptly named Goodreads group was created for exactly the purpose of helping people reconnect with lost titles!

Book Hunting: Another Goodreads group that will rally behind a good title search and help you out.

What’s That Book Called?: Bookish Reddit is here for you in this thread for lost titles, too.

A number of other bookish communities exist that might also be up for the challenge, but aren’t dedicated to it specifically.

If you’re trying to figure out how to find a book using a vague description, people have also claimed good luck using general querying sites like Quora and Stack Exchange, and frankly, why not…

4. Mine Your Own Connections

The resources you need might already exist within your network, whether in person or through social media — especially if you’ve cultivated a bookish following. Tap into them by posting your query on your social media, and expanding the reach with hashtags like #WhatsThatBookCalled or #ReadersCommunity may help you find the right person to lend a hand.

But even this might be overthinking it. Sometimes, relocating a lost book isn’t so much about finding the person with vast bookish knowledge so much as it is about finding the person with the right shared experience. If it’s a children’s book, try your siblings, childhood friends, or parents. If it’s from high school, are you still connected to any of your friends from English class? It’s worth a shot!

5. Finally, Ask the Experts

Librarians are geniuses. And they live books all day long. Ditto for bookshop employees. Their brains are probably the best book-hunting resources that exist — and I promise you’re not their first book hunt query! (Get some librarian insights into your hunt here.)

Did you find the book you were looking for? With so many options available for how to find a book using a vague description, with time, the odds are in your favor. Someone else out there has read the same book as you, and if it left a strong impression on you, it probably left an impression on other readers, too! Thanks to the internet, no book is lost forever. Happy hunting!