Here’s an interesting post from Sherwood Smith at Book View Café about recommending books and the difficulties thereof.
“So what do you do,” this guy said, “when you discover someone you like—you really respected—loves terrible books?”
This was a gathering for university faculty, where some were friends, some colleagues, but a lot of us plus ones didn’t know anyone.
No one spoke, until his wife cracked, “I’ll bet he’s at home right now saying the same thing about you.”
After the laughter broke the uncomfortable moment, the guy said, “No really. Who can get through a page of Dan Brown’s leaden prose? His crap sense of history?”
The obvious answers came from all around, basically saying why argue with the millions Brown has earned in book and film revenues? No, but really, the public does have terrible taste, look at Love Story when we were young, made Dan Brown look like Shakespeare—what is bad prose—why can’t everyone see it—different kinds of readers looking for different kinds of things.
Pretty much everyone there was a reader, so the conversation waxed enthusiastic, no one completely agreeing with anyone else (except about Dan Brown’s prose) until it broke up into a bunch of separate conversations, but it got me thinking about how we recommend books to others.
So, recommending books to specific people is quite different, I think, from writing general comments about your own response to a book — in other words, a recommendation is not the same thing as a review.
You know what is the same thing as an individual recommendation, though? Buying a book as a gift for someone.
In my family, we joke that all presents are book-shaped. It’s undeniable that the vast majority of gifts given in my family are books. True, these days, Amazon wishlists make this easy even if you have trouble guessing what your brother or friend or mother might like, but of course not everyone has an Amazon wishlist and anyway that disconnects gift buying from recommending.
My record for recommending specific books for specific people is spotty, and sometimes, as Sherwood says in her post and as the discussion in the comments agrees, it’s really difficult to figure out why a particular book did not appeal to someone as much as you hoped it would.
One year recently I got my mother four murder mysteries, each by a different author, that were all first published ages and ages ago, in the 1930s to the 1950s. I searched for “books you might like if you love Rex Stout.” My mother so dislikes most modern mysteries — she doesn’t like the coarsening of the language, or more than that, the lack of sheer elegance in the writing. I was hoping to discover a new-to-hear mystery author she would really enjoy. She liked one of the authors pretty well, thus opening up gift-giving potential for the immediate future.
And this past winter, I was right in sending my brother a copy of James Hetley’s (Burton’s) POWERS. He really enjoyed that one and read the sequel way before I got to it.
A year or so ago, when I read a recent YA and didn’t care for it at all, I gave it to an acquaintance with a fifteen-year-old daughter. She loved it, but that’s not quite the same thing as an individual recommendation. I was just like, Oh, she’s fifteen, maybe this will appeal to her.
I gave a copy of UPROOTED to a friend and that turned out to be a good choice for her.
Anyway, except for buying gifts, I really don’t make a lot of specific, individual recommendations. I just write comments about particular books I like and let people decide for themselves whether that sounds like it would work for them — the same way I read reviews for myself.
Oh, and not quite the same, but regarding the opening lines of Sherwood’s post — I once gave some sequel to The Sword of Shannara to a friend and was astonished when she liked it just fine. I’d gotten it as a free book for joining some book club or other and I made it through about two paragraphs before deciding it was just horribly written, and later, after talking to this friend more about the books she liked, I decided that honestly, she enjoyed anything at all with fantasy trappings and made no distinction at all between bad, good, indifferent, or excellent. This was a revelation to me. I hadn’t realized such indiscriminate reading was possible.