“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.