Essays

Let Me Think About It: On Recommending Books

By posted at 6:00 am on May 27, 2015 16

At a wedding last summer, a guy seated at my table told me he hadn’t read a book in four years. I can’t remember the title of the traumatic work that occasioned his renunciation — perhaps it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses — but I distinctly recall panicking when asked by this prodigal reader to recommend something. Which magical text would show him the folly of his non-reading ways?

I entertained suggesting something patently inappropriate. Maybe one of those erotic French tales put out by Grove Press would get him back on track, something like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Guillaume Apollinaire’s incest-laden Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehall or Régine Deforges’s The Storm, the rawest of the lot. Or I could just say The Goldfinch and get it over with. However, with this tantalizing blank slate offered up before me, I froze.

“Let me think about it.”

I was mercifully saved by the start of a merciless best-man speech.

Ann Patchett would have turned that young man around. In a Washington Post article titled “Owning a Bookstore Means You Always Get to Tell People What to Read,” Patchett writes:

When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people.

There are many differences between Ann Patchett and me. She is a successful novelist and businessperson — I am most definitely not — but more important, I have a lifelong phobia of forcing books on people.

Patchett continues on the joys of hand-selling: “[Customers] just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.” The very thought nearly stops my heart, cursed as I am with the neurotic inability to look into the smiling, trusting, and curious eyes of would-be readers and give them what they want.

One could charitably ascribe my hesitancy to recommend books an excessive respect for other people’s time: who am I to tell you how to spend so many hours? But that’s not really it. Reading is an investment, but unlike stock tips, there is profit to be had in even the most dubious recommendations. Nor does it have to do with the fear that the suggested title will reflect on my own aesthetic or moral deficiencies.

And still, as a recent encounter with a new neighbor made painfully clear, I just can’t not make a mess of things.

I first met him as he was pedaling by my house, bicycle-riding twins in tow. When I mentioned that I reviewed books, he naturally asked: “Oh, got any good ones to recommend?” For me, the equivalent of a politician’s “gotcha” question.

The usual reaction occurred: a rush of blood to the face, followed by blubbering equivocations and panicked attempts to stall for time as I cycled through every book I’d read over the last weeks, months, years, then all the books I hadn’t read over that same time. Given what I had gleaned about him in our brief chat, which of these hundreds of titles would be best?

Nothing was coming to mind. The helmeted twins glared at me, justifiably resentful that my deliberations were cutting into their playtime.

Come on, champ. Anything. Erik Larson has a new book about the Lusitania. Too many syllables? Anthony Doerr just won the Pulitzer. Or Phil Klay. Iraq, and all that powerful stuff.

But for some reason known only to my maker, I was seized by an almost Tourettic desire to scream out The Epic of Gilgamesh. I held it in, though as I squirmed I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye. He was wondering, I imagine, whether I had ever read, let alone reviewed, a book. Had a spy moved in next door, using the shaky cover of a freelance writer/editor? The twins grew more antsy, doing circles on the quiet street as they waited for their father to conclude with this stammering yutz.

coverInspiration! I’d just read a Kindle Single, Jeff Wise’s The Plane That Wasn’t There, which put forth a rather fanciful account of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alas, it didn’t seem like the best time to explain how the plane had been diverted to an airfield in Kazakhstan as a Russian-sent warning for NATO to stop meddling in Ukraine. I would save that for a summer barbecue when I had him good and cornered.

Good god, man, spit it out!

covercoverA book about neighborly quarrels could be fun, like James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Blanca. No, too arch. Or perhaps he could lose himself in some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? That ought to keep him busy.

The light declining, I finally decided to put myself out of my misery.

“Let me think about it.”

The family pedaled off, fated to rely on more articulate acquaintances or Amazon’s algorithm for recommendations.

Perhaps because of my book-recommending block, I respect those with the courage to impose their reading will on others. Take my friend’s boss, who stopped him in the hall and “suggested” he buy a 600-page, dry-as-dust tome called Successful Executive’s Handbook, never to indicate any relevant sections or even mention it again. That’s a power move worthy of a successful executive.

coverAnother good friend loved Norman Mailer’s massive CIA epic, Harlot’s Ghost, so much that for a period of six months he pressed it on people he met on the street, baristas, girlfriends, soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, and me. There was no dithering about whether you liked fiction or nonfiction, bios or memoir, character-driven or plot-heavy novels. You even hinted that you were looking for a book recommendation and the next thing you knew, there’d be a 1,400-page brick on your nightstand.

A few weeks after loaning me his copy of the Mailer, which I didn’t dive into quickly enough, he snatched it back to give to someone else. The new recipient trudged through 1,399 pages, hating every minute of it, before seeing “To Be Continued” at the bottom of the last page. This proved too cruel a joke. Released from her self-imposed burden, she refused to read the final paragraph as a matter of principle.

A few days later, when we were having coffee, my friend offered Harlot’s Ghost back to me if I promised to read it promptly this time.

“Let me think about it.”

Image Credit: Flickr/ginnerobot.

The Millions' future depends on your support. Become a member today!




Share this article

More from the Millions

16 Responses to “Let Me Think About It: On Recommending Books”

  1. Jack M
    at 7:25 am on May 27, 2015

    The best recommendation I ever got was from a woman I worked with who seemed to only like romance novels, which of course I found appalling. Guess what she suggested I read? The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass! It came totally out of left field, and I was in awe of her from then on.

  2. Jacques Fleener
    at 11:25 am on May 27, 2015

    I worked one period a day in the library as a high school senior, having triumphantly taken a study hall instead of calculus, and because of my satiric and sarcastic bent, the librarian recommended Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Which I checked out and steadfastly never read. A few years ago I finally read it, and thought, “Man, I would have really liked this in high school – more than I do now.”

    I always ask people what they like to read and what’s the last thing they read. If they like westerns I say The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt. If they say sci-fi I try Ted Chiang. On the Road I say Jesus’ Son. Beautiful Ruins or A Visit From the Goon Squad are good options for people who are just dipping their toes in literary waters.

    I think a lot of people make the mistake of recommending a book more to showcase their own tastes than to actually please another person. My mom wanted to read something I recommended Caleb Carr (this was some years ago). A lot of you would have hated it, she loved it. I think that’s what it’s all about.

  3. Gary
    at 8:29 pm on May 27, 2015

    For many years I recommended a particular book to a well-read friend that I knew she would like. After I was about to give it up as a hopeless case, she told me she finally picked up the book. I didn’t press her for reports, figuring if she finished it at all it would be at her own speed.

    After many weeks went by, I finally got an e-mail report saying that she had just finished the book and loved it. Her husband found her when she reached its end in a pool of tears and became alarmed that something was wrong. She had to reassure him that it was just the book she read and that the tears were actually a good thing.

    My rule is: know your audience.

  4. heather curran
    at 2:38 am on May 28, 2015

    Hey Matt, love your humour! But hey if it helps, anyone who hasn’t read a book in four years really does not want a recommendation; so your “let me think about that” nicely saved THEIR ass as much as yours.

  5. themba mabona
    at 2:39 am on May 28, 2015

    Lately it’s been an easy call: The Vorrh, How I became a Nun, In Stahlgewittern, Distant Reading, Beginning Modernism, The Stormlight Archive…. Total Eclecticism is a boon when it comes to making recommendations. Personally, I can’t remember following any recommendation [other than The Vorrh from The Guardian] as these word-of-mouth-novels splat up against the insuperable rampart of my annual reading list [ok, so it’s not exactly annual, but what to call it?].

    Though, come to think of it, can I truly recommend The Flamethrowers? It does drag ever so terribly in the last third…. hmmmmmm…

  6. GuiltyFeat
    at 7:34 am on May 28, 2015

    As a reasonably eclectic and committed reader, I am often asked for recommendations. I find that people are really asking me, what can I read so that people around me who are talking about interesting things will be impressed when I tell them what I have read.

    They’re not looking for recommendations as much as social keys that will grant them prestige and the “right” kind of knowledge.

    But if you ever really do come across someone new to the world of reading who is genuinely looking for a can’t-fail recommendation, you could do worse than:

    Birdsong
    One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
    American Tabloid
    Plainsong
    Seabiscuit
    The Plot Against America
    A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
    The Big Sleep
    The Dark Knight Returns
    The Age of Innocence
    One Hundred Years of Solitude
    Time’s Arrow
    Breathing Lessons
    Holes
    Anna Karenina

  7. The Untranslated
    at 9:45 am on May 28, 2015

    What about book recommendations in other books? For example, Pynchon famously suggests reading Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo in Gravity’s Rainbow,

  8. Shelley
    at 11:32 am on May 28, 2015

    The precise, adoring recommendations by viewers of movies on Netflix that I then watch and find to be, to me, totally without value–it’s undermined my faith in the usefulness of anybody recommending anything to anybody else.

  9. Evelyn Walsh
    at 4:30 pm on May 28, 2015

    Next time you should absolutely shout GILGAMESH– so funny.

    And yes, the question at the heart of this essay also makes my mind go blank.

  10. priskill
    at 5:20 pm on May 28, 2015

    So funny and so true — so hard to determine what, if anything, I can recommend, although I do second Evelyn Walsh on the Gilgamesh shout-out — too funny. Laughing out loud reading this, thank you.

  11. JSWeb
    at 8:50 pm on May 28, 2015

    Here I imagined I was the only one who felt like I’d never read a book in my life when someone asks for a recommendation! I’m simpatico with that feeling of arm-pit drenching tension when you come up with one book after another mentally, but just as many reasons why they wouldn’t like it or would just think you’re a bit of pretentious twit for suggesting it.

    I once walked into a coffee shop carrying a beat up copy of Atlas Shrugged and the barista commented on it then proceeded to recommend that I read the Sword of Truth Series (Terry Goodkind). I don’t have anything against sci-fi/fantasy, but I found myself slogging through book one (much like the Harlot’s Ghost experience you write about here). I read each page wondering when the recommendation would make sense, it never did.

  12. Kirk
    at 10:55 am on May 31, 2015

    When I recommended Flowers for Algernon many years ago to my younger sister, she became a reader, and later, an English teacher. I find that most people who want recommendations want quick-can’t-put-it-down-300-pages-or-less books. Most of my favorite literary fiction/classics do not fall into that category.

  13. Monday Links for 6.1.2015 | this life
    at 9:17 am on June 1, 2015

    […] Let Me Think About It: On Recommending Books – on a certain level, I could relate to this piece from the Millions about the pressure when someone asks you for a book recommendation.  I love reading, and I love to share that passion; but being aware of that results in a little bit of self-consciousness when someone asks for a recommendation (that they expect the book to be amazing because it comes from a person who reads a lot).  Whether such is actually true doesn’t matter, because sometimes that feeling, for me, makes me feel incredibly pressured (I’m not as “afflicted” by this as the author of the piece, who essentially was unable to make a recommendation when asked).  I work to get past that, understanding that one recommends books they find compelling, and must trust that the recipient of a recommendation understands that when a person likes (and thus recommends) a book, it often says more about the person than the book.  That said, I will pass on this summer reading list from Vox, and state that I do agree that the following books are very worth reads…Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. […]

  14. Doug
    at 3:01 pm on June 1, 2015

    As one of those, “prodigal readers” mentioned, I don’t know that any recommendations made (and there were plenty) would have made a difference.

    If I tried any authors or books that were recommended to me, I soon gave them up, frustrated at being unable to concentrate long enough to make it through the first chapter or two.

    In my case, what seemed to make all the difference, was “going electronic.” It wasn’t until I upgraded my phone to a larger display, AND picked up a tablet in the process, that I finally got back into the swing of things.

    After a rough couple of years recuperating from glaucoma and treating depression, I found that my reading appetite has returned in full force.

    It wasn’t time until it was time.

  15. Bonnie
    at 3:56 pm on June 5, 2015

    A year ago I read Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, which I absolutely adored and decided should have been required reading. I’ve wholeheartedly recommended it to everyone who’s asked me since, and the one person who picked it up once I’d brought it up enough times didn’t finish it! I actually felt sort of betrayed, and also like there was something suspicious about him not to find the book more compelling. A few months ago, another friend of mine who’s steadfastly ignored my Biswas mania read a Katherine Anne Porter collection I’d mentioned liking — but the one story in it I’d been sure she’d dig turned out to be the one she didn’t. There’s no accounting for taste, but since we all know that, I will continue to recommend away. I’ve always read my friends’ recommendations because I think it helps me know them better, and fosters good conversation whether I share their enthusiasm (recently: Romain Gary) or not (Barry Hannah).

  16. I’m Not Great At Recommending Books | Big Reading Life
    at 5:24 pm on February 2, 2016

    […] read a great essay recently over at The Millions, about the author’s humorous and semi-disastrous experiences trying to recommend books to others.  I can identify with him; I, too, often freeze up with a […]

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.

NEW COMMENTING RULE: Comments may be held for moderation and/or deleted. Whitelisted commenters will see their comments appear immediately. Don't be a jerk. We reserve the right to delete your comment or revoke commenting privileges for any reason we want.