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The ‘Tricky Maneuver’ of Recommending Books

The ‘Tricky Maneuver’ of Recommending Books post image

At this moment, I can’t think of anything more luxurious than sitting down to read a book a day for an entire year. Can you imagine waking up each morning with the goal of finishing a book, and having that goal be the driving motivation of your day? Amazing.

The idea has been in my head since Sunday when I finished reading Nina Sankovitch’s memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which is about her project to read 365 books in 365 days. This project wasn’t just for kicks: after her sister, Anne-Marie, passed away after a short illness at 46, Sankovitch found herself split apart — one part stuck back in the hospital room with her sister and one part rushing forward, trying to live as much as possible as a way to make Anne-Marie’s death mean something. As a way to center herself, to find a way back to actually living, Sankovitch decided to spend a year in immersed in books, reading and reviewing a book every single day.

For a short book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair gave me a lot to think about. Rather than just writing a chronicle of “my year in books,” Sankovitch uses her year of reading to explore what books mean to readers and how we use the greater truths that can be found through the written word to inform and live our own lives. The chapters are arrange thematically, and Sankovitch draws together books that seem to have nothing in common as she works through her year of reading.

One phenomenon Sankovitch explored was the idea of recommending books to others. As she started her “year of magical reading” — a great reference to Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking — Sankovitch found herself inundated with recommendations for books to read from other people. “Take this,” they’d say, “I think you’ll love it.” However, this brings about some complications:

People share books they love. They want to spread to friends and family the goodness that they felt when reading the book of the ideas they found in the pages. In sharing a loved book, a reader is trying to share the same excitement, pleasure, chills and thrills of reading that they themselves experienced. Why else share? Sharing a love of books and of one particular book is a good thing. But it is also a tricky maneuver, for both sides. The giver of the book is not exactly ripping open her soul for a free look, but when she hands over the book with the comment that it is one of her favorites, such an admission is very close to the baring of the soul. We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect  of ourselves truly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime.

As a person who constantly recommends books — both online and to friends and family — I’m really curious about this idea. Does recommending books really have this much weight? Is a book recommendation really putting your soul out there for others to see?

Sometimes, most certainly. One of my favorite nonfiction books is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. I unabashedly love that book, and nearly always put it high on a list of books I want everyone to read. I think it’s stunning. When a couple of my favorite bloggers picked it up earlier this year, I was really nervous… What if they didn’t like it? What if they thought it was terrible? Would their opinion of me and my reading tastes change? Would they suddenly stop reading my blog and shun me to the far corners of the Interwebs?

Thankfully, no, but clearly there’s some anxiety in recommending a book that I have such a personal and deep stake in.

On the other hand, I’m not usually anxious when someone comes to me and asks for a book recommendation. I can share some books I’ve loved, but also suggest books I’ve read about they might enjoy. If the person doesn’t like any of the books, it’s not really a statement about me, I just misread their tastes. Plus, they asked, so take the advice with a grain of salt.

I also don’t feel a lot of anxiety when I post most reviews here on the blog. I suppose the difference is how much a book is loved — the more attached I am to it, the more anxious I feel about writing a review and putting myself out there as a cheerleader and champion for a story. And there’s also a sense of detachment; writing a review on the blog isn’t too anyone. I’m not taking a book and putting it in a friend’s hand and saying, “I loved this. I think you will too.” Doing that… that can be scary.

Sankovitch is right: We are what we love to read. The books I carry with me, that stay on my shelves from apartment to apartment are part of me. They’re books that say something about who I am and what I believe and how think about myself. And recommending any of those, of taking them off the shelf and handing them over… that’s a little scary. It’s my soul showing free, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

How personally do you take the idea of recommending a book to someone else? Do you find sharing books to be a personal thing, or just a question among friends? What would your shared books say about your deepest self?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy June 15, 2011, 6:35 am

    This post actually really makes me want to read that book 🙂 It’s now on my wishlist, sounds really interesting. I think there is some truth in what she says. Our online reviews not so much as in person recommendations, but either way what we read and recommend definitely shows a lot about us. Our interests, our prejudices and world views, all of these come out through the books that we read.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:31 am

      I liked the book a lot — maybe even more than I was initially to. And yes, suppose a cumulative look at the review we post does say a lot about who are are and what we love.

  • Care June 15, 2011, 7:29 am

    I agree that foisting our most beloved books on someone can be soul-baring but regular ol’ book recommendations do not carry so much weight. Guess I will have to go with the “It all depends” comment. FABULOUS post.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:31 am

      Ha ha, that’s exactly how I felt by the end of reading this post — it depends!

  • Reading Has Purpose June 15, 2011, 8:20 am

    I’ve never even thought about this question until you just asked it. But now that I think about it, I do take it personally if I recommend a book to someone that I know could help them and they completely blow off the idea. Or better yet, when I mention the book a second time and they act as if they’ve never heard of it.

    One of the reasons I started my blog is because I wanted to be able to connect with people that were more into the world of books and all of the benefits that come with reading – nonfiction in my case.

    I no longer recommend books unless asked. Well actually, I’ve learned (from one of the books I read) that you probably should give any advice unless asked anyways!

    Nice Post!


    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:33 am

      Ha, good advice. I still sometimes will foist books on people in person, but I do it a lot less than I used to because I have the blog to use as my platform for being excited about the books I read. Plus, like you said, sometimes recommending nonfiction seems even more tricky than fiction.

  • Steph June 15, 2011, 8:44 am

    I think the best book recommenders are ones that can put their own personal biases aside and look at the person they are recommending a book to as objectively as possible. I always like to know what other people enjoy reading before I suggest something else they might like since I realize that my tastes are simply my own and a book I love may not speak as eloquently to someone else.

    I make no bones about shouting to the world when I love a book, though even then I acknowledge that not everyone will feel the same. I guess I am sharing something about myself when I reveal what I love, but I’ve found the book blogging world so wonderfully supportive that I don’t mind giving people those glimpses.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:34 am

      Yes, that’s a great point Steph. I’ve been trying to do that more with my recommendations, but it can be hard to do when you just love a book so much and want to tell everyone about it!

  • Trish June 15, 2011, 9:28 am

    I have to admit I was a bit turned off by the premise of this book before reading your post. A book a day? I can’t help but think of all the things one would have to give up to read a book a day. But it sounds like this is about much more than that.

    As to your question–yes, I have a tough time recommending books. I did a Sunday Salon about this not to long ago after I had given my dad Remains of the Day to read and he didn’t get it. I felt absolutely crushed because I love the book so deeply. But then I couldn’t quite explain to him just why I loved the book. I took it personally and have since been afraid to recommend anything else to him (he’s my #1 guy when it comes to me recommending books). I do believe that books can carry a piece of your soul and when you choose to share that book and passion with someone you are putting your self on the line a bit. Not true of all recommendations but the ones that really matter… It’s why I don’t normally recommend my very favorite books to others.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:37 am

      She does acknowledge the things she may have to give up to make the year work — and how her family had to step in to help to make it happen. But she frames it in such a way that it makes sense why you may need to do that.

      And yes — I think you nailed it — the recommendations that matter share a little bit of our soul.

  • Heather Pearson June 15, 2011, 10:06 am

    There is a difference between suggestions and recommendations. I will suggest a book title to a stranger in a store. Usually because they are hovering over at title I’ve read. But a recommendation usually comes out during a conversation, or because a particular person comes to mind while I am reading. I don’t recommend lightly. I really would like to find the best read for that friend.

    This does sound like a worthwhile read. Thanks.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:38 am

      So very true — suggestion versus recommendation. I’m too nervous to suggest books to strangers in bookstores, but I think it would be fun!

  • Jeanne June 15, 2011, 11:48 am

    When I send a copy of a book to a friend (imaginary or otherwise), I’m always nervous they might not like it and think I’m weird. Sometimes they do. And I’ve lived through that.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:39 am

      Lol, so true. We’ll all live through it 🙂

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 15, 2011, 12:30 pm

    I do think people do take it personally. I have book club tomorrow night and I’m a little nervous because I wasn’t crazy about the book and the woman who picked it loved it. I’m really interested in this book!

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:41 am

      I always get nervous picking a book for book club — I hate feeling like I forced people to read a book they didn’t want to read!

  • jenn aka the picky girl June 15, 2011, 12:47 pm

    The first part of your post sounds strangely like mine today. Great minds think alike. 🙂 My post is about how each person approaches a book differently and how it really is a different book to different people.

    Similarly, when recommending a book, I really have to stop and think about that person. It can be difficult if I love a book, but sometimes I know a book I love is not one my mom would love, though I may read her parts of it or tell her about it. Same thing with my best friend. However, there are also moments when I tell them a book may not be their typical read but that they must read it anyway. 🙂 What can I say? I might be a little bit bossy…

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:42 am

      I liked your post a lot Jenn! I feel the same way about books for my mother and sister — they like such different things than I do that I can’t always recommend the things I love to them.

  • Joy Weese Moll June 15, 2011, 1:23 pm

    An acquaintance recently lent me a book and at the moment of actually handing it over, I think she started to regret the whole idea. It suddenly struck her how revealing this book was going to be about her and we don’t actually know each other that well. I’m kind of taking it as an act of trust that she bravely handed it over and intend to be extremely careful and gentle about what I say and do after I read it.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:43 am

      That’s a great story — I love it!

  • Florinda June 15, 2011, 3:05 pm

    The more I thought about what I wanted to say in response to this post, the more I thought it might be better to respond in a post of my own, since I don’t want to hijack your comments! However, I do think I want to read this book :-).

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:43 am

      Yay, I can’t wait to read your response in a post when you put it up! And I liked this book a lot — I hope you enjoy it.

  • Stephanie June 15, 2011, 3:07 pm

    I have seen this book around but I had no clue what it was about. Now that I know, I want to pick up a copy immediately.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:44 am

      Excellent! It’s a really lovely book — I hope you enjoy it.

  • Belle Wong June 15, 2011, 4:57 pm

    This is such an interesting question. For me, it depends on the book. I enjoy almost all the books I finish (otherwise I’m not likely to finish them!), but there are only a handful that I love so much, I want everyone I know to read them and give them a chance.

    Generally, if I’m giving a direct book recommendations, it’s based on what I know of the person’s interests, both in reading and life in general. I don’t attach anything deep or significant to these recommendations. If I enjoyed the book, I just hope they will enjoy it too, but I have an eclectic reading taste and many people don’t, so it doesn’t really bother me if they don’t. On the other hand, I do get a little bit nervous when I’m recommending a book I really really loved. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of funny that I feel that way! So perhaps I’m putting more of my deeper self into those kinds of recommendations.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:46 am

      I think it can depend on the book, as you say. If it’s one of those life changing books, it’s scary to tell people how much you love it.

  • Teresa June 15, 2011, 5:39 pm

    I always find recommendations to be tricky. I’ve had people recommend books to me that I know right off I won’t like, but not everyone seems to understand that not every book suits every reader. I don’t consider it a big deal when someone doesn’t care for a book I love (unless they’re nasty about it), but I’ve seen people take it personally.

    I’ve also sometimes had people ask me just to tell them what’s good, and I never know how to answer. I’ll usually grill them a bit to see what else they like and recommend accordingly, but I always couch the suggestion in a bunch of caveats because I just don’t always know what people will like. Maybe our tastes don’t align at all!

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:47 am

      Great point — it takes awhile to realize that not every book is quite right for every person. I’m still trying to remember that 🙂

      And yes, that’s such a hard question! There are lots of books that are good, just depends on the person 🙂

  • softdrink June 15, 2011, 5:48 pm

    So…would you recommend this book? Because I was this close to buying it the other day.

    I have a hard time recommending books. Like you said, there’s that anxiety component of “what if they don’t like it” but also because I don’t think I read books that most of my real life friends and family would be interested in.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:49 am

      Yes, definitely! I think it’s a book that most book lovers will find something to enjoy in it. I read a lot of books that people in real life might not find that interesting, but I try to make good recommendations anyway.

  • Jennifer June 15, 2011, 8:53 pm

    I like the idea that we are what we love to read. Still, I do have a difficult time recommending (and sometimes reviewing books). People read for different reasons and it is difficult to pair people up with books. Still, I love the idea of opening up parts of myself to friends and i don’t think I would ever pass up the opportunity to talk about books with a friend or new acquaintance. It is personal on some levels, but it is also a great way of getting to know someone: what books do they enjoy reading and why? how do they connect to books? These are questions I’m still figuring out about myself and i feel like reviewing books on my blog is helping me figure that out.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:51 am

      Great comment Jennifer 🙂 I don’t think I have anything to add!

  • Rebecca Reid June 16, 2011, 7:58 am

    I tend to always give a disclaimer when I recommend a book. But, other times is so painful. My book group last year decided to read Mrs Dalloway. At our book group last night, only one from last year’s group was there: the other four all HATED it and it was a painful discussion about how awful it was. Oh it made me and lisa so sad since we loved the book so much!!

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:52 am

      Bummer about your book club — that’s so sad! I get nervous about recommending to my book club too.

  • Andi June 16, 2011, 4:48 pm

    A LOVELY review for a book I REALLY want to read. I cannot imagine having the goal of reading a book a day. It’s just too close to heaven. Totally out of reach for me. 🙁

    I do like her thoughts on book recommendations, and I do feel some anxiety when I recommend books I truly adore deep down in my soul.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:53 am

      Thanks Andi! I would loooove to get to read a book a day, but yeah, totally out of reach for now.

  • Jodie June 17, 2011, 7:52 am

    I’ve had to develop a bit of a book lending thick skin (as has my mother) because while we might like books the other likes it’s rare we’ll both love the same book. I do worry that people will think I’m weird if I hand lend them a book (putting it in their hands rather than just saying ‘oh this is good’ on the blog) but I’m getting better at putting myself and my tastes out there. You learn so much when other people read books generously, even if they don’t love the book like you do. I actually think whether you’ll lend out a book that means a lot ot you can be a measure of how comfortable you are with a person – are you comfortable enough that they can be ambivalent about your favourite books, without it feeling like a rejection of you?

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:53 am

      My mom and I have very different tastes too. And I love the phrase “read books generously” — that’s what we should all drive to do.

  • Jenny June 18, 2011, 8:44 am

    I luuuuurv recommending books to people. My favorite thing in all the land is when someone says to me “Jenny, what should I read next?” I do not mind if they don’t like the books I recommend, although of course I would prefer they love them. If they don’t like the books I recommend, they are just wrong. :p

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:54 am

      I love that too! But then I get totally overwhelmed with all the books I could recommend, based on what I’ve read and all the reviews and I can hardly come up with anything 🙂

  • christa @ mental foodie June 18, 2011, 11:11 am

    I was debating whether to review this book, but decided not to… maybe I should have 🙂

    Usually when I recommend books to others, I take in their preference. If I knew someone who loves chicklit and not murder/mystery, I am not going to recommend the latter. If they don’t usually read but want to start reading, but not sure what genre they like, I’d ask them what movies they like (since more people watch movies it seems!) and recommend books accordingly. Occasionally I’d say, “If you have to pick one non-fiction to read this year, even though it’s not your genre, you should try this one!”

    It’s definitely thrilling when someone loves/likes a book I recommend as much as I do 🙂

    • Kim June 20, 2011, 7:47 pm

      I think it’s a book full of moments that book lovers will really enjoy, especially if you’re of the school of thought that books have important things to teach us about how to live life. I really enjoyed it.

      I like the idea of asking about movie choices to think about book recommendations — good idea!