Making Book Recommendations

Here’s a post at Book Riot that caught my eye:


That seems harsh. I mean, realistic, but still harsh. Let’s look at the context:

… small talk plus a reading hobby equals the inevitable question, “got any book recommendations for me?” or “read anything good lately?” And it’s meant well. It’s a natural progression of the topic of conversation. But, I can’t be the only one who dreads questions like that, can I?

Well, “dread” seems like a strong word. This looks to me like an invitation to continue the small-talk-getting-acquainted thing by saying, “Well, I don’t know, what do you like?” or “I read mostly fantasy and mysteries and romances, do you read any of those?” or, “Sure, I’ve got ten thousand recommendations — what’s a book you recently loved?”

If the person turns out to like fantasy and romances, there you go, recommend Sharon Shinn or whoever leaps to mind for that sort of story. If the person turns out to like only nonfiction, maybe you also like that nonfiction topic and can spend the next hour talking about, I don’t know, the Indus River civilization or whatever.

The worst that can happen is that the person tells you in detail about the plot of a book you hated, but whatever, this is small talk, just nod and smile and murmur politely and after a decent interval, shift the topic to work or hobbies or (generally my choice when possible) pets. Practically everyone with a pet is happy to talk about the pet.

Anyway, this post then goes on:

First, I’m one of those “bad” readers who can’t remember books after I finish them. Like, seriously! In my brain and immediately out. I can remember titles, usually, but there are countless books on my Goodreads that I can’t remember a single detail from. On many occasions, I read a book for a second time without realizing I had already read it. 

And I skidded to a halt.

Okay. Does anyone here have that happen? I mean, not a book you read 30 years ago and now you don’t remember anything except a vague impression that the protagonist was a thief and that the cover was blue. I mean, books you read, say, this past July. In your brain and immediately out. No memory of the book. Yes?

Because, no. This is one of those areas of human experience that I trip over and think, Seriously?

I stalled out at this point in the linked post and just thought about being an avid reader / who does not remember anything at all about a book immediately after having read it. I’m having trouble believing in this. Not that I don’t believe the author of this post. I’m just having trouble believing in it.

Anyway, that stopped me.

As far as book recommendations go, that does happen on Quora. Can you recommend a good book? What books do you recommend? Lots of people answer those questions. While it’s fine to talk up a book you love to random strangers, it does seem more practical to ask in return, What books do you already know you like?

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12 thoughts on “Making Book Recommendations”

  1. Some books are certainly more memorable than others. But I can’t think of any that I’ve completely forgotten a month later (though some I wish I could). But maybe if I read a book a day, something like that could happen? Or maybe if I read too many similar books.

    I guess I can imagine that sort of thing happening, but I haven’t experienced it.

  2. Kathryn McConaughy

    I may not remember the title, the author, or the cover, if I read it more than 5 years ago. But once I start reading I definitely remember the book. I recently was working my way through a certain author’s backlist via ILL – looking for the books that my local library doesn’t have – and got thirty pages into one with a growing sense of deja vu before deciding that I’d read it before and if it took me this long to remember the book I probably didn’t need it read it again.

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    On a related note: I have a number of friends who genuinely are avid readers and can talk in great detail about plots, characters, etc., but don’t remember author’s names. Do you think this is common? I tend to remember the author’s name before anything else.

  4. Ditto on the comment that I might not remember the title, author, or cover, but once I start reading I will remember the book.

    And one of my reasons for GoodReads reviews is that they help prompt my memory of the book. I often can’t remember anything at first, but with a couple of sentences I almost always remember it.

  5. I am fairly good at remembering what happens, and at remembering relationships and character development, and very bad at remembering names.

    I often remember the first letter, and a general idea of ” it was something like this, but not this exactly”. Tyen I get hung up on the names I know aren’t right, and can’t shake those off to get to the correct name, at least until I’m thinking about something else.
    I’m a bit better at the author names than the character names, but I don’t really remember real-life names much better than the author names.
    Often even right after I’ve read a book, and am thinking over/ telling someone about all that was happening in the book, and the impressions I gained of the characters, I’ll still blank on their names.
    Sometimes they come back to me after a bit.
    I’ll have to refer to the character by talking around them, like “Miguel and Alejando’s sister” (and I know that *I know* her name, she’s important and an interesting character by herself, it just won’t come to the surface right now; it’s something Spanish like Maria or Rosa or Consuela, but none of those, and not Gabriella either) or “the boy with the grandma in the south, who put a net over the hole to Hell because he sees maths in his mind so clearly that he can draw complex spells very accurately and quickly”.
    Which names this happens to is rather unpredictable, and it changes: tomorrow I might forget Alejandro’s and Ezekiel’s names but remember their sister/fiancée’s name.

    If the names are complex, spelled with illogical accents or unpronouncable, I will not even remember them *while* I’m reading the book. Sometimes I can skate by on recognising the first letter and the shape of the word, or just the first letter/a few letters combined with the shape the character occupies in the narrative.
    For a book like “Speaker for the dead” everybody gets a mental label (the speaker for the dead, guardsman, theatre producer, the dead actress, good goblin singer, the granddaughter of the old man exiled to the village with the ghoul, etc.) and I think of them by their labels; I really have no idea about their names, except for the dead actress’ name starting with an

    Some simple titles that convey a meaning that is closely connected with the story I can remember, like Tuyo and Foreigner; others I can’t, like the rest of the Foreigner series (sometimes I know the title word, but not which book/part of the story it refers to, e.g. Inheritor is either book 2 or book 3). For titles consisting of a few words, it’s easier to call up that information-link with the story, for instance The Floating Islands, or The City in the Lake, so those I tend to remember best.

    Some longer/whole phrases titles may stick in the mind, like “The unbearable lightness of being” by Milan Kundera (which I haven’t read); but others, maybe too poetical to get firmly linked with the content of the story in my mind, are immediately forgotten. I fear the Death’s Lady titles fall in this category for me, which is why I have to talk about that trilogy by their collective name.
    It makes talking about books a bit difficult.

    On the other hand, I’ve found that it takes me at least 10, but often closer to 15 or 20 years before starting to reread something like a simple, enjoyable detective lets me bring to mind at least the general gist of the story. Stories without emotional impact get forgotten more easily – I could reread a lot of Rex Stout detectives and enjoy them again “as new” without immediately being reminded of “whodunnit” after something like 15 years. Not that I mind spoilers, I just noticed that I didn’t remember a lot of what happened when I reread them. Dick Francis often packs more of an emotional punch, so for those it might take 20 years; and with some of my favorites that I’ve reread several times, they may always trigger that memory upon rereading.

  6. I occasionally forget I read a book bc it didn’t stick with me, but never right away. I do use goodreads as a sort of external memory, but once I read my review it all comes back. I know some readers are not very mentally engaged with what they read, so then maybe things don’t go into long term memory (?), but I can’t imagine being like that and working for a book blog.

  7. . . . How? Of course, there are eminently forgettable books, or formulaic books that blend together, but if it’s a book I would recommend to someone, yeah it might take a minute to remember the title, the author (if they were unfamiliar), a character name, or what the plot twist was that I don’t want to give away to a new reader – however, I’d still remember enough to give the prospective reader a general gist!
    I keep a bibliography, and that helps; also I tend to reread books that make an impression. And yes, I do personalize recommendations. I usually start with genre, then get more specific about elements that the person likes about the genre, etc. And usually I throw in a few of my personal favorites in the hope of increasing their readership. :)
    But never have I ever forgotten a book that fast. Seriously, what does this person read, that none of it sinks in? Even the silliest fluff usually has something that sticks in the memory!

  8. I suppose if it’s a terrible, formulaic book as a previous commenter said. But no, I can’t imagine having books go out of my head the way the Book Riot post is talking about. I do think my memory has gone downhill after age 40 or so, but even now I have vivid memories of books I read as a child/young adult. Actually not just the plot or the author, but the first time I saw the book and decided to pick it up, or memories of actually reading the book, or particularly memorable lines. Like I remember picking up The Dark is Rising in the public library of the town where I went to middle school; it was in one of the spinning carousels and I almost didn’t pick it up because I didn’t like the cover much. Or reading The Blue Sword at my desk in my room and having to hide it under a school book when my dad unexpectedly knocked on the door. Or Gillian Bradshaw’s Island of Ghosts, which I got from the “New Fiction” shelf at the public library of the city where I went to college, and the line about how love is not like a bucket that empties when it’s poured out. It’s like a stream, so when it finds itself blocked in one direction, tries to find another path, another person to love. (OK, it’s not an exact quote, but I still can’t imagine not remembering a book at all right after reading it!)

  9. TC, don’t even talk about memory going downhill. I’m really not happy about that. Aging, ugh.

    You’re so right about remembering books you read first when you’re — I’m going to say — about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, in there. I think those are the books that set up a reader’s long-term tastes in important ways. Or at least, for a lot of readers. Maybe not for people who instantly forget everything about a book.

    I think that’s close to the line about love from Island of Ghosts. What a wonderful book that is. One of Bradshaw’s very best.

    As far as remembering names, I’m terrible with character names and not much better with author names. I do think that’s common. Personally, I remember the basic look of a character’s name, but often have to check the spelling when I write a review. I remember scenes far (far) better than names. Lines of dialogue — lines of description. Important plot twists. Unimportant plot moments that happen to resonate with me. Those are things that stick with me pretty much permanently.

    Titles — I can’t keep series’ titles straight and couldn’t remember the titles of the individual books of the Foreigner series or Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series to save my life. Or I remember the title of only the first book in the series and use that to refer to the whole series, as when I refer to Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series as The Thousand Names series and so on.

    There have been books I’ve forgotten a lot about. Those don’t tend to be books I want to re-read.

  10. I deal with chronic pain which often makes me less engaged mentally with the world. I have also been on many different medications, some of which have affected my memory. Since my issues started, I remember what I read less and less. The other day I picked up a book by an author I love in a series I love and was halfway through it before I realized I knew the answer to one of the mysteries going on. I remembered nothing else about the book.

    Books I read that were okay? I don’t remember them and only remember sometimes if I’ve read them. Books that I read and like? I usually remember that I’ve read them, but I may only remember large plot points and the most prominent main characters. I am much more likely to remember how the book made me feel, if I liked it and if I want to read more by that author.

  11. Well, Kaylynn, those are certainly important things to remember!

    For me, I can realize partway through that I’ve read a book before, but mostly if I didn’t especially like it and wasn’t particularly engaged. That happened with a murder mystery not that long ago; I read the beginning with no memory of the incidents whatsoever and then suddenly hit a plot point and realized I had indeed read it before — and hadn’t been impressed.

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