How to Find a Book From a Vague Description

"It was a thriller...I think?"

rachel weisz in the mummy

One of the most infuriating modern problems is having a question you can’t easily answer with a Google search—like when you’re trying to figure out the name of a book without knowing the author, any part of the title, or the name of a main character.

We’ve all been there, and know how frustrating it is when searches of “book where [insert foggy memory here]” turn up fruitless. Luckily, there are a few things you can try to increase your chances of finding that elusive title. Below, we’ve listed the five steps you can take to find a book from a vague description.

And don’t worry: If you still can’t find the book, you can always turn to our book recommendations for a new story. One day, you may even move on from your great white whale

1. Gather the details.

Every detail matters when you’re trying to find a book without a title! Write down everything you can remember, like the genre (Was it a psychological thriller? A historical romance?), character names and personality traits, any scenes that stand out in your head, or a memorable quote

Even the decade you think the book came out and where and when you originally read the book could help you figure out the name of the book. Something you read in high school, for example, may be on a recommended reading list, and at the very least, you'll be able to immediately remove any newer releases from your search. Any and all of this information could increase your chances of tracking down the book you’re thinking of.

2. Google it.

We know—we just said these things are difficult to Google. But, the more you can remember, the more likely it is that the almighty search engine will turn up the answer you’re looking for. For example, let's say you can’t remember the name of the classic children’s book Ella Enchanted, a play on Cinderella in which a girl is cursed with having to obey every order she is given. If you search for “book girl who is cursed,” you won’t find it on the first page of search results. But throw in the word “obey,” and there you have it: Ella Enchanted is the first result.

You can also enhance your Google skills by smartly using quotes and minus signs. If you’re absolutely sure a certain phrase or name was in the book, put it in quotes—Google will only return results with those words. 

And, if the wrong book is crowding your search results, you can exclude those pages by adding a minus sign in front of a keyword from that result. E.g., “book girl who is cursed -rapunzel” to get rid of results about a certain long-haired shut-in.

3. Google Books it. 

Another trick is to specifically search within Google Books, and try to include words you’re sure would be used in the text of the book. Google will scan every page of every book available for purchase in their database to see if it has the words you entered—and that’s a whole lot of books! 

So, to use our Ella Enchanted example again, instead of typing “book girl who is cursed to obey,” you might try “girl curse obey.” For the record, this works! Ella Enchanted is the second result for those terms on Google Books.

4. Ask Reddit.

If you’re not familiar with Reddit, don’t worry. It’s very simple to use, and there are many subreddits with users who are extremely helpful and love puzzling out the answers to difficult queries. (Plus, while you’re there, you can get lost in the drama of reddit relationship stories.)

For this specific task, you’ll want to make a post in one of two subreddits: r/whatsthatbook, or r/tipofmytongue. The former is full of book lovers who really know their stuff, though it’s not as active as the latter, where users post all the details they can remember from a book, movie, song, video game, etc., and other users help them figure out what they’re thinking of. 

If you do post on a subreddit, make sure to read any rules, guidelines and FAQs so your post isn’t taken down by the moderators. Then, with any luck, the sub will be able to help you find a book from just a vague description!

5. Ask a librarian.

If even after taking the above steps you find that your detective skills are below the level of solving a cozy mystery, your last resort is to go to the professionals, which in this case means a trip to the library. 

At Early Bird Books, we love librarians and all of the fantastic things that can happen at the library. They’re a veritable wealth of knowledge, and librarians tend to love helping you track down information and figure out how to best research almost anything, including the few snippets you recall about a book.

In short, they’re super-star sleuths who are more than willing to help you search their databases to figure out the name of the book you’re looking for. And, worst case scenario, if they can’t help you find that title, they can definitely point you in the direction of some others you’ll be sure to love.

Featured photo from The Mummy (1999).