Sunday Salon: Recommending Books

sunsalon1A couple of weeks ago, Times Online printed a list of Nick Hornby’s Top 40 recommended books. In discussing his choices on his blog, he wrote:

“It can happen anywhere: a dinner table, a pub, a bus queue, a classroom, a bookshop. You have struck up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and you’re getting on OK, and then suddenly, without warning, you hear the five words that mean the relationship has no future beyond the time it takes to say them: “I think you’ll like it.” This phrase is presumptuous enough when used to refer to, say, a crisp flavour; if, however, you happen to be talking about books or films or music, then it is completely unforgivable, a social solecism on a par with bottom-pinching. You think I’ll like it, do you? Well, it has taken me over fifty years to get anywhere near an understanding of what I think I might like, and even then I get it wrong half the time, so what chance have you got?  Every now and again I meet someone who is able to make shrewd and thoughtful recommendations within the first five years of our acquaintance, but for the most part, the people I listen to I’ve known for a couple of decades, a good chunk of which has been spent talking about the things we love and hate.”

This got me thinking: how do you recommend books? What makes you believe a certain person will enjoy a particular book? Do you think there’s a difference between blogging about books for an anonymous public and recommending a book to, say, a neighbor or a co-worker?

Most people seem to believe that if they read and love a book, then others should read and love it, too. What else, really, do we have to go on, beyond our own rapture? Why should we ever assume that we might be wrong? But frequently, we are. We are mistaken in our belief that everybody will love what we love. Some people cure this by reading and recommending only what is popular or classic. This way, they always have backing. If it’s a best-seller or on a college reading list, then something about it must be worthy enough to recommend it.

I rarely recommend books to people. I know this sounds strange, what with me having this blog and all, but I think of this blog more as a journal of sorts (albeit a public one) where I can record my thoughts and you can read them. To a great extent I believe that literary matchmaking is as difficult as putting people together. So much of what’s hidden goes into our love for another person–our culture, our families, our beliefs about the world–and I believe the same is true for books. It can be shattering when we recommend a book to people and they don’t love it the way we do. It can change relationships, because what they are saying, really, is, “I do not see the world as you see it.” It depends upon the relationship, of course, but I know it happens. Silly, because we don’t expect people to love our spouses or significant others as we love them, and so it should be the same with our favorite books. 

But I believe we should not be afraid of being wrong, either, because first, there is no wrong, and second, fear of being wrong leads to mediocrity. Probably I should explain that: First, we are not wrong to love the books we love. Second, if we adjust our tastes about what we love or recommend to be “safe,” then we risk mediocrity. I find this in my book club. Several of the women seem to be afraid to choose books that aren’t popular or that they haven’t already read and deemed “safe” (i.e., exactly like something else we’ve read already). Myself, I choose books from my TBR list. I never know what we’re going to get. I like the idea of discovering things together, but often when my time to pick comes around, I can see several of the other members roll their eyes. I’m amazed they don’t groan outright. And it’s not even that they dislike every book I pick (they don’t), but simply that, for whatever reason, they seem to think what I pick will be difficult or dark. My last pick was Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo, and the club declared it “not a Priscilla book at all!” In other words, it was light-hearted. On some level, I can’t deny this, because many of the books I love do have an element of difficulty or melancholy to them, and most likely I’m putting books on my TBR list that are similar in some way. But by the same token, when I’ve recommended other books for them, like I Capture The Castle or A Girl Named Zippy, they haven’t wanted to read them. But these books, which are neither difficult nor dark, are two of my favorite books. 

For some reason, we do tend to focus on the differences. Hornby says, about his list:

“As it happens, I have been asked to choose forty-odd books for a writer’s table at Waterstone’s, and I think you’ll like them. I think you’ll like a few of them, anyway, although of course I have no idea which one or two, and I certainly have no idea who you are, or what state your marriage is in…

I don’t think you ought to read everything on this list, and nor do I think you should have read them already; I hope you haven’t, in fact. The most frequent complaint I hear from readers is that they are stuck, in a rut, bored by the literary routes they usually take. If, as a result of these recommendations, someone sets off on a reading journey that they wouldn’t normally have taken, and that journey ends in the sort of blissful, all-consuming absorption we all used to feel further towards the beginning of our reading lives, then I’ll be happy.”

In reading, we should focus on the journey. I love when people recommend books to me because they take me places I might never think to go. I may not love the time I spent in every single place, but I’ll be better for having gone there, surely.  But many people want to stay in their own neighborhoods, or only visit big box stores and chain restaurants. But I suppose that if some people need safety from books, if what’s comforting is the same thing again and again, who am I to say that is wrong? Who am I to tell them what to read, or that they should change? Tricky business, recommending books. Tricky indeed.

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12 comments

  1. What I like the most about the Nick Hornby piece are exactly the last two passages you posted 🙂 He knows it isn’t safe, but he does it anyway. I do recommend books to people. More so online than in person, but I do. What keeps me from feeling I’m being forceful is knowing that people are free to ignore me, and also that I’d be perfectly okay with them hating the book. For the same reason, I welcome recommendations. Literary matchmaking is difficult indeed, but it’s all about trying.

  2. I rarely recommend a book. If someone gushes about a book, I’ll put it on my TBR list. Whether I end up loving the book or not, I try to make sure to tell the person “thank you” for recommending it. What a great post!

  3. This was a great post! Really very thoughtful. I am one of those people who recommends books, but I must say that I rarely recommend a single book unequivocally. I always tailor my recommendations to the person I’m talking to, and tend to leave my own personal biases regarding the book aside. I do manage to take into account other books the individual I’m recommending to has expressed enjoying in the past, as well as what they’ve mentioned NOT liking too (this is why I post negative reviews on my blog – I think it’s equally important for people who read my book reviews to get a sense of what I dislike as well as what I like so they can get sense for themselves what my Achilles’ heel is when it comes to literature and see what biases I might be bringing to the table).

    Certain books I love wholeheartedly, independent of how recommendable they are. I loved “I Capture the Castle”, but it’s not really the kind of book I would recommend to my boyfriend, because I realize that kind of book won’t really be his thing. Doesn’t make me love it any less, though! 😉

    And I agree that one of my huge beefs with book clubs is the unwillingness for many members to take a chance when it comes to the actual choices. Like you, I always used my book club in real life as an opportunity to tackle something in my TBR pile. They weren’t always hits, but they did lead to interesting discussion and at least that month I got to read something I wanted to! 😉

  4. What a wonderful post! Well thought out and fearless. I have to read Hornby’s blog.

    It’s rare that I recommend a book but I love to talk about the books I’ve read and thoroughly enjoy it if a friend picks up on one of those books. When I review a book I try to include the theme of the story and hopefully a bit of the author’s style. I will be reviewing Monsters of Templeton later this week.

  5. I tend to recommend books based on what the person has previously enjoyed. If they say…oh I loved such and such a book and I have read something similar or with similar appeal than I will recommend it. I’ll even recommend books I don’t necessarily like if I think they are similar to what that person has liked.

    I get asked for recommendations a lot…both online and in real life since I’m a reading tutor. I like to recommend books, but of course, I have definitely been wrong…both in suggesting books I think someone will like or recommending books they stay away from.

  6. Great post, Priscilla! I do recommend books in person, too, but only to those who ask. Usually I recommend to my sisters. And a few very close friends. There’s one friend who I used to exchange books with. Until it got to a point where we figured we had very different tastes. She let me borrow books like The Nanny Diaries and Marley and Me, and other titles I really didn’t care for. On the other hand, she got bored with Love in the Time of Cholera and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I loved. I still recommend books to her when she asks, because I read a lot more than she does, and now she knows I know what type of books she likes.

    On my blog, I’m like you. I treat them as notes for myself. And if I liked a book then I hope others do, too. If they don’t, I feel nothing against it. Like you said, reading is very personal.

    Btw, Steph has recommended I Capture the Castle to me, too. I checked it out on Amazon and think it’s my type of book. Only our library doesn’t have a copy so I’ll wait until I can find one on my future forays in bookstores out of town (our town’s bookshops have very limited selection).

  7. Nymeth, I agree with the idea of believing people are free to ignore me. That’s one of the terrific things about a blog, especially: you offer a part of yourself, of your view of the world, and people are free to accept or reject it as they see fit.

    Vasilly, I also pay attention to how enthusiastic other people are about particular books. If something in a review or recommendation strikes a chord with me, then I put it on my list. I like to hope that’s what I am doing here: putting my thoughts out there so people can decide for themselves. Of course, if I don’t like something, they should be free to read it and love it and even come back and tell me so! That’s what conversation is all about.

    Steph, recommendations, when offered, definitely must be tailored to the audience! (This is what frustrates me about my book club and I Capture The Castle–I know they would love it, based on six years’ worth of evidence!) If someone asks me to recommend a book, I am always willing. I also try not to dissuade people from reading books I didn’t like, but as you say, I feel I must be honest and give negative reviews where I feel it’s warranted. I think that’s part of an honest conversation and building trust.

    Gavin, I can’t wait to read your review of Monsters of Templeton. I too love it if I mention a book in passing and a friend picks it up!

    Amy, when I was teaching, I think I felt more sure about recommending books to students. And agreed, recommendations should be tailored. For example, my mother in law and I have very different tastes, but I introduced her to Eragon–not a book I would have picked for myself back then, but I paid attention to what she loved and bought her a copy when it came out.

    Claire, I am putting The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana on my TBR list as soon as I am done responding here. Ha! I am exactly the same: I will recommend books if asked, otherwise I keep quiet. I have maybe one friend to whom I am comfortable offering an outright suggestion, but even then I try to consider her tastes. And even when I pick book club books, I honestly try to consider what people will like to read, not only my agenda. All that said: I can’t wait for you to get a copy of I Capture The Castle! It’s just such a wonderful experience! (Wow…that sounds like a recommendation, doesn’t it?) Honestly, I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  8. I do try to be cautious when recommending books. Like others, I try to keep in mind other books the person I’m talking to has liked, and I usually offer a caveat of some kind because my tastes are pretty eclectic.

    The real trouble is dealing with others’ recommendations. There are some people I know who are always pushing the latest best-seller, and I just don’t trust their taste. But I do know sometimes the books they like do happen to be good, so I don’t want to dismiss their suggestions outright.

    (And I did get my book club to read I Capture the Castle. They liked it, but it wasn’t a big hit. We’re now reading our first Jane Austen, and I’m terrified that they won’t like it.)

  9. Apropos of today’s Monday Musing question, which concerns initiating a conversation with a stranger on books, I find your post very thoughtful. I usually don’t talk to stranger, but am all ears if people ask me what I’m reading. Likewise, I glad make recommendation if people approach me. Making book recommendation can be as difficult as a full-time job because you’ll have to know the person’s inclination and preference. I have relied on a few people with whom I share similar reading taste.

    For first-timer, I always recommend The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s difficult to describe the nature of the book, which was not published during the author’s lifetime, but has become one of the staples among Russians. I approached the Russian people at the local market and they all know about the book, which deals with a struggling author whose life a woman called margarita is willing to save at the expense of her life.

  10. Teresa, you are right about dealing with other people’s recommendations. On this note, I can’t count the number of people whose opinions I trust who have told me I HAVE to read the Twilight series (not to mention the bloggers who love it), but I am just not interested. I try to go with my instincts when people recommend books, most definitely.

    Matthew, I don’t think I’ve ever made a suggestion to a stranger, or even a friend of a friend whom I’ve just met! I have not read The Master and Margarita. Should I consider that a suggestion? 🙂 I will definitely check it out either way.

  11. Tricky business indeed! I am guilty of recommending books to friends but I don’t insist that they read the books. I figure it’s up to them to see if they want to read the book. And, I have gotten over being disappointed if people didn’t like my recommendations 🙂

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