Recommending books

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.

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11 thoughts on “Recommending books”

  1. As a librarian, I definitely know the difficulties of boo recommendation! We spend so much time pondering and discussing this, reading theories about it and going to trainings (both about how to recommend well and how to get enough information from someone to accurately recommend)… And still, finding that perfect next book for someone is no easy task… It’s certainly a lot of fun, though, and a great buzz when it works! I think my favorite theory comes from Nancy Pearl. She feels that there are four main elements that can cause people to enjoy a particular book — story, character, language, and setting — and a good recommendation will find a book that has these in the same proportions as the last book they loved. So, that’s why Dan Brown from the example above can be very popular with some people — the language focus of the author can be low but the story is high. Personally, I seem to best love books that most focus on character and/or language, to a point (once it gets into the literary genre I tend to get distracted by the clever things I notice them doing), though a great setting can draw me in. However, one of my best friends is all story/plot. The setting can make no sense, the writing can be very choppy, and the characters cardboard thin, but as long as the ride is fast and full of excitement, she’s happy. We cannot recommend favorite books to each other — it’s more a, “Well, I kind of hated this one, but I think you’ll like it.”

  2. About those mysteries: I feel the opposite way. I couldn’t face anymore stories about a Death in an English Manor. Has your mother tried Nevada Barr or Kate Wilhelm?

  3. Oh, The Sword of Shannara. That was recommended to me (hah), so I picked up the first two or three books. Couldn’t stand how artificial it seemed.

    What Matthew said about Nancy Pearl’s elements for recommendation resonates with me. There are several people whose choice in books made no sense to me, but if I look at it as a focus on story, then perhaps it fits.

  4. The Nancy Pearl elements are very interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way. There are some authors that I’ve always said I ought to like because their subject matters are dead center in my interests but that I nonetheless can’t stand (e.g., Brian Lumley and Charles Stross). Dan Brown would be another good example. So why don’t I care for them? In the Pearl framework, I think it would be because I don’t grok their language. (Stross and Lumley are not technically incompetent – I refer to their styles here.)

    Movies are an interesting example of this as well. We see a lot of remakes. The content is very close, and, in some cases, identical. For example, Let the Right One In. The original is one of the best vampire movies ever made. The remake in English is a direct copy, almost shot for shot, but is a far inferior film. How can that be? Exact same story, but told in a slightly different way, and that makes all the difference.

  5. While I don’t disagree with the Nancy Pearl elements (story, character, language, and setting), I wonder if that leaves out Idea. I don’t think that’s the same thing as Story, which to me means plot. But I know people who seem to be much more about the Idea in SF — who admire big, unusual concepts or particularly off-the-wall ideas. And that can be partly Setting and partly Plot, but I sort of feel there’s more to it than that.

    Anyway, I do agree for sure that Language (I would have said Style) alone can make an enormous difference and I bet is where the recommendation failures mostly come from. “But I was sure you would love this!” and then the person really dislikes the book and can’t see how you could possibly have recommended it — I bet that’s mostly Language, because that would be the most personal and hard-to-pin-down aspect of a story.

  6. Recommending and giving books is HARD!! So much conflict between wanting to share something I love and being afraid they’ll hate it – which almost feels like a rejection of me, personally. (Maybe I’m a little too invested in the books and authors I love….) And receiving a book or recommendation, especially from someone I care about, can be just as taxing. I feel almost obligated to like it. I’ve caught myself avoiding a friend who has loaned me a book and can’t wait to talk about it with me – and I couldn’t even finish the damn thing! Ugh. The pains of being a book lover.

  7. If your mother likes murder mysteries with elegant writing, has she tried Sarah Caudwell? Her writing drives some people crazy (“too mannered”) but I enjoy her.
    As a writer, I love how she created characters who never require dialog tags; you can easily tell who’s talking by their voices. Plus, I like the idea of a narrator whose gender is never specified.

  8. Mary Anne, I know, I hate hate hate reading a negative review of a book I love — it almost feels worse than a negative review of one of my books (not quite). And someone just highly recommended Memories of Ash by Intisar Khanani with that exact “You must read this, I HAVE to talk to you about it!” enthusiasm, so I sure hope I love the book!

    Evelyn, thanks for the recommendation — I will give my mother something by Cauldwell and see what she thinks!

  9. If you plan to read Memories of Ash, you should probably read the prequel novella Sunbolt first. I have really liked everything I have read by Intisar Khanani.

  10. Mary Ann, yes, I’m sure. I picked up Sunbolt right away when I saw Memories of Ash was book two in a series.

  11. FWIW I picked up a sample of Memories of Ash and had no trouble following, so far, and I’ve now bought the whole so… Yeah, I’d kinda like to know more of the past, but enough is being provided I don’t feel I have to have read the previous work.

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