How to Find a Book When You Don’t Know the Title or Author

Have you ever lost track of a favorite book from your childhood because you can’t remember the title or author? Do you have the story on the tip of your tongue? Can you explain the plot, describe the cover, or know the era, but just can’t remember the one detail you need in order to actually find the book? We’ve been there and know exactly how frustrating this can be. Below are a few tips we’ve used when searching for a lost book we love.

Tips to Find a Book When You Don’t Know the Title or Author

If you’re currently suffering from a case of book amnesia, try some of these tricks to see if they can spark your memory and help you remember more than a vague cover image or a quirky side character you loved.

First, Wrack Your Brain for Book Memories

When it comes to finding a book you have only a vague recollection of, you need to fish out everything you can possibly remember about it from your memories. Answer the below questions to see if they help you recover any additional information about your book.

  • What did the cover look like? Do you only remember a fuzzy image that’s predominately one color? Even that is a clue! If you think hard, do you remember any elements on it? Was the author’s name in large print, or was the title large? Any of these details can be the difference between success or failure.
  • Can you remember a phrase, quote, or a particular paragraph of the book? Sometimes you can remember lines you felt were funny or meaningful or just plain weird. Write them down as best you can for your search. Odds are that same phrase may have stood out to someone else too.
  • What can you remember from the plot? Even if you’re not entirely confident, write down what you think you remember. You might find your memory looks something like “boy gets kidnapped. Girl best friend says she’ll find him. I think she becomes a detective at some point or runs into him later in life and they fall in love. The boy may be involved in drugs or something sketchy when she runs into him. I think at one point he wakes up in a dumpster.” Even though you’re not one hundred percent certain, you can try different searches with the elements you think are there and hopefully in one combination, you’ll get a hit. Or, hopefully your details will be close enough that someone else can piece the elements together.
  • Can you remember any characters’ names? Remembering one or two of the characters’ names will also be a huge help in your search. Even if they’re side characters and not main characters, write them down.
  • What genre was it? If it was fantasy, do you remember any details to narrow it down to a subcategory of fantasy?
  • Do you remember any other story-related details, like a city name, street, location, pet, era, etc.?
  • Do you remember any details related to publishing? Do you remember whether your school or library that you got the book from often bought books from a certain publisher? Do you remember when the book was published? For example, if it was a book you read from your childhood, then you know you can exclude any recent publications. Or, perhaps you remember that it was a new book that came out when you were in high school, then you’ll know to look for books published only in those few years. Do you remember any other similar authors that people seemed to also read if they liked the book you’re trying to remember?

Remember to write down as much information as you can, and maybe you’ll remember some more details in the process of finding your lost book.

Google and Other Search Engines

When you first try to search for a forgotten novel, you probably turn to Google or a similar search engine. Unfortunately, your average search may not be able to get you the results you’re looking for. Because of the vast volume of novels with similar plot elements and various SEO tactics and companies skewing the search results to favor their products, unless the book you’re searching for happens to be one of the most popular books of its kind, you’re going to have to do a deep Google.

Let me explain. If you’re looking for a book about mermaids, but you’re definitely not looking for something super popular like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, you may become frustrated that no matter what variation of “mermaid” search terms you try, you still find Little Mermaid results popping up on top because Disney can afford to pay people a lot of money to make sure their products stay on top of the search results.

So when searching for a forgotten novel, you’ll often have to use all the different details you remember from the book with Google’s different search functions. For example, quotations will be your friend to make sure Google doesn’t try to eliminate distinguishing details. The addition symbol will be useful for linking multiple elements into one search. Try using the Advanced Google Search Page with filters like subject, publisher, language, and publication date as well. Another tip is to always check the image results. If you’re on the right track, then sometimes an image result will appear more quickly than general search results. There are other advanced Google search skills that you can give a try too, like excluding specific keywords or using the wildcard operator to guess the name of a character.

Google Books Search

The Google Books Library Project now makes it possible to find books by searching through their text and content. The Books Search reference page also displays book specific information like various covers, tables of content, common terms and phrases, and popular passages from the books. You can quickly view sample pages to ensure that the book you’ve found is the book you’ve been looking for.

There are several other book databases you can find as well, such as Book Finder, Word Cat, LibraryThing, Book Sleuth, Goodreads, Amazon’s Advanced Book Search, and Library of Congress. However, if you haven’t been able to find the book you’re looking for with a Google search, you probably don’t have enough information to find it in one of these databases either. If you want to give some of these a try though, these are some of the ones we find the most useful.

  • Book Cave: This site has the unique feature of being able to search through a rated books database. So if you know a book was a children’s book, you can avoid any adult rated book. Or if you know it’s an adult rated book you can exclude anything milder.
  • The Library of Congress: This the biggest online library in the world and has a search engine capable of combining search parameters with keywords. There’s also an interesting option called “Ask a Librarian” where you can send an email and try asking for help in finding your book.
  • Worldcat: Worldcat is a catalog of over 70 thousand libraries in 160 countries. Here you can look for a specific keyword, and you’ll get a list of book titles in various languages. There’s also a “Fiction Finder” section where you can search for a book by a character or place in addition to a keyword.
  • Big Book Search: If you can only remember what the cover looks like, try this cover-search tool.
  • If you can remember just one word of the title, use the search function on Goodreads or Library Thing to find long lists of titles with a particular word.
  • Goodreads’ browse-able lists of titles that readers have shelved in unique categories, such as authors’ professions or decades of publication, may also be helpful.

Turn to Reddit or Other Popular Book Forums

Is there anything that the people of the internet don’t know? If computerized searches fail and you need a personalized touch, there are thousands of fellow book lovers out there who would love to help you out. Places like Reddit, Tumblr, Goodreads, and several other bookish forums have book sleuths that seem to be able to solve even the vaguest of mysteries. Reddit in particular has several dedicated sections such as Tip of My Tongue, What’s That Book, Books, and PrintSF for when you can only remember the cover. Just take a scroll through the book section of Reddit to find a thread that best meets your needs. If Reddit isn’t your thing, check out some of these other book forums and groups:

  • Goodreads What’s the Name of That Book? is a group that will help solve your book mystery after you’ve done a valiant effort to first find it yourself.
  • LibraryThing’s Name That Book is another place where you can post about your forgotten novel. Just follow their instructions and try to wrack your brain for as many details as you can, and fellow readers will do what they can to find your book.
  • Stump the Bookseller is a blog run by a cool indie bookstore in Ohio that offers a $4 dollar service to help readers find lost books, specifically childhood books. Plus they have large searchable archives that you may find helpful as well.
  • The Fiction_L listserv is another place where you might be able to get some help, although they don’t seem to have a section dedicated exclusively to finding lost books.

Ask Your Own Social Network and Community

Post on all your social networks, reach out to friends from the time when you were reading the book, and ask a local librarian or even old school teachers. You might be surprised to find that your personal community is the missing link needed to find your book. Communities often have similar interests, so the books you enjoyed as a child might be the same books your friends and others in your town also enjoyed and borrowed from the library.

Your own circle may be especially helpful if you can remember the time that you read the book. If you know you read the book in junior high or high school, reach out to your friends from that era and see if they remember anything about the books you were reading back then. If you’re like me, you probably have a whole friendship circle of readers and you probably not only told them about every book you read but also offered to let them read it as well so you could talk about it. You never know what odd memories a person may be able to recall from their past.

When All Else Fails

If you’ve gone through all of these things and still aren’t able to find the elusive book you’re looking for, then you may have to accept that it’s not going to happen or even that you may not be remembering it correctly. I remember one story about a person looking for a particular Danielle Steele book who later realized the book she was looking for was actually by Daniel Silva. These kinds of close but not quite recollections are understandably frustrating because while you’re confident you’re looking for the right thing, in the end you were actually going down the wrong rabbit hole the entire time and may not even have realized it.

Another consideration is whether what you’re looking for is even real. There have also been times in my life that I’ve been convinced something that happened in a dream was real life, and oftentimes my dreams take up various elements of books I’ve read. Could you possibly be remembering a detail wrong or combining several different books from your past? Whatever the case may be, hopefully you can at least be somewhat cheered up by the list of books you’ve uncovered in your search that at least have many similar elements to what you were looking for.

Happy reading!

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Originally published at https://mybookcave.com on January 15, 2021.

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