• The Perils of Recommending a Beloved Book

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 93 comments
    Oct
    5

    Discussion questions: When you recommend a book you love, do you in some ways feel like you’re recommending yourself for approval or disapproval? Are you hesitant to recommend a beloved book, or do you do so without a second thought? How do you feel when the person you’ve recommended it to loves it? Hates it? Is indifferent, or doesn’t even read the damn thing? What is your best experience of recommending a beloved book? Your worst? Tell us about them below.

     

    On a long-ago episode of Yak Babies I broke my friend Aaron’s heart.

    A few weeks earlier, after Philip Roth died, Aaron named Roth his favorite writer and Goodbye, Columbus his favorite book from his favorite writer.

    I’d never read Roth, but Aaron and I have always enjoyed many of the same books. We both love Stuart Dybek so much that we considered a spin-off podcast where every episode is a discussion about a different Stuart Dybek story. (That project still hasn’t gotten off the ground, perhaps due to the painful lameness of our show’s name: Dybek All Daybek.)

    Anyway. All I knew about Goodbye, Columbus was that it was a well-regarded novella, some of it was set in Boston, and Justine read and enjoyed it. Having Aaron declare it his favorite Roth book was enough to make me track it down the very next day and begin what I assumed would be a pleasurable, likely even memorable, reading experience, leading to an enthusiastic discussion with Aaron about its merits, even its near-the-top spot in our literary pantheon.

    I read it. I disliked it. I told Aaron. I heard his heart break, on the air.

     

    Sometimes it’s unduly nerve-wracking to recommend a beloved book to a friend or family member. It almost feels like you’re recommending yourself for approval.

    And there are really only five ways it’ll go, and only one of them is truly satisfying.

    Here’s my ranking, best to worst:

    1) They read it and they love it for all the same reasons you love it. This is the ideal. It’s rare.

    2) They read it and they love it, but for reasons that differ from yours. Hey, at least they love it, and you’ve given them a good reading experience. But… why don’t they get it the way that you do?

    3) They read it and dislike it. It feels almost like a personal rejection. But at least they had a reaction.

    4) They read it and shrug their shoulders. Some say the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference. That’s how I feel when recommending books. If they hate it, well, at least it brought strong feelings. And then you can have an interesting discussion. If their reaction is to have no reaction at all, then the whole thing will feel pointless… and so might you.

    5) They don’t even the read the damn thing. It’s hard to take this any way other than “I don’t really care at all about the things you love.”

    There’s also a worse option than no. 5, the dreaded no. 6: They don’t even read the damn thing and, even though it was your copy of your beloved book, it disappears forever into the landfill of their life. But let’s not talk about this one. It’s too painful.

     

    A few years ago I fell in love with a book called Beatlebone. I thought my Yak Babies co-hosts, all good friends, should fall in love with it too. So I proposed that the three of them read the book and we’d discuss it together in a future episode.

    Two of them started it and eventually quit; the third never even began.

    When it comes to recommending books: Is there anything worse?

     

    Do you get anxious when recommending a beloved book, or do you do so with abandon? How do you feel when your reader loves the book? Hates the book? Is indifferent? Doesn’t read it?

    What is your worst experience of recommending a beloved book? Your best experience?

    Do you ever feel like recommending a book is almost like recommending your own self for approval or disapproval?

    Let us know in the comments.

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Elissa MalcohnSusanHDavid DuhrSusanJosé Skinner Recent comment authors
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    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    I’ve loaned probably a dozen books out. Most times, I’d stick one of those return address stickers on the inside cover. Almost the only person I’ve gotten books back from is my daughter. Sue and I recommend books back and forth. Some times we like them and sometimes not. She hated Tanith Lee and any of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels. Something worse then recommending a book or novel is gifting one and having them comeback to you saying they hated it, which is way worse than them not getting around to it, ever. It was probably back when I was… Read more »

    frances hill
    Guest
    frances hill

    I also use return address labels because my books are like friends to me, I want them back!

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    I am so happy now for those little library boxes around my neighborhood. I can leave a book anonymously and take one anonymously, and one of them has some of the best books ever and they’re all, like, my kind of books. I may make it into a story. I am a little freaked out that every time I go past there’s another book that I really have been wanting to read.

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    I’ve only seen one of those library boxes in Milwaukee where I don’t live. Free with no time limit is fantastic, but unless I stumble upon a fountain of youth, I’ll die long before I read all the book in this house. There’s a Japanese word for me, tsundoku.

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    tsundoku? There are three library boxes within walking distance of my home. I make sure to give one up for every one (or 3 or 4) that I take. Will I read them all? No, but I just like having them.

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    So far, in my favorite box, there’s political, history, Irish history, children’s books, and dog books. I got Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US, a book about Sinn Fein, Anne of Green Gables, Esperanza Rising….a few others. They’re all in good shape too. By coincidence my cousin writes about Italian immigrants and I found one written in Italian by immigrants for him.

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    Oh, yes, sure,I really do look exactly like Lauren Bacall when she was 26 or so. I have no idea how that picture got there.

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    In truth, it combines elements of tsunde-oku (積んでおく, to pile things up ready for later and leave) and dokusho (読書, reading books) But I like your much more visual and dynamic definition better.

    KevinW
    Guest
    KevinW

    Well…its like my Nietzschean buddy in the pickle business likes to say…”What doesn’t dill you makes you tsukemono”…

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    I’m leaving now…

    KevinW
    Guest
    KevinW

    Come on, that was funny…if I were to ever get a tattoo, that’s what I would get, in black gothic lettering, “What doesn’t dill you…”

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    Groan…

    frances hill
    Guest
    frances hill

    Most of the books I have recommended have been enjoyed by friends, but when one of them recommends a book to me that I don’t like, I wonder what’s wrong with ME! Am I too dumb to understand it? Is it too nice for me? would I tell them truthfully I hated it or couldn’t finish reading it? Does what we read categorize us? Food for thought!!

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    There are so many books to read and we have so little time. I know people who claim to have read over a 100,000 books yet they will never read them all. We have to make judgement calls. Does it give us something we need?

    Bobbie
    Guest

    Every one has different likes and dislikes in reading. I don’t judge anyone on what they like or dislike. I’ll give the ones I like, but others may hate those books. I love the Eragon series, others hated them. I love Nora Roberts and her Robb Sci-Fi books along with her romances. I dislike most time travel things, having only one or two which I even completed. By making recommendations, you are opening the other person’s world to something different. They try it and either like or dislike it. It’s all about broadening horizons and remaining open to other styles,… Read more »

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    Some good reads there. As far as broadening horizons go. I blame my eclectic reading tastes on the Goodwill and Half Price Books. When I was a kid and building a library, GW books were a nickel and I’d leave with an arm full. Same with HPB when they had a sale. It seems most people are pickier.

    Bobbie
    Guest

    I go to Bookman’s in Flagstaff. I’ve bought books there and at the goodwill, a few second hand shops and yard sales. In school, I’d skip lunch and save my money for the book sales and buy the cheap books they sold to encourage kids to read. Then again, I spent half my life in the city library reading everything in the children’s department and I made a good dent in the rest of the fiction and some of the nonfiction sections. I quickly discovered that a lot of people are stuck on one genre and seldom read anything outside… Read more »

    Bobbie
    Guest

    I love the library sales except where I live now, I’d have to go into Flagstaff or Prescott to get to one. The small libraries here get most of their books from then main libraries there on a rotating basis.

    frances hill
    Guest
    frances hill

    Your library sounds like mine, Eragon and movie, Terribythia (spelling?) were favorites of mine too.

    KevinW
    Guest
    KevinW

    Years ago, I agreed to exchange religious-themed novels with a woman I was dating. She gave me “A Prayer For Owen Meany” by John Irving. I bought her a limited-edition hardcover of “A Canticle For Leibowitz”. Leibowitz came back a few days later, with a comment of “Really, Kevin? Really? I managed to make it through the first twelve pages. Mutant monks in the radioactive desert? Really? Ugh!” To my credit, I slogged through Owen. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a loooooooong novel about a kid who believes he was touched by God and therefore has a Destiny.… Read more »

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    You love me? I had no idea. I am verklempt. (Do you have an extra room in your house I could stay with you guys for a year or two, now that we’re like family?) Seriously. Once I was in the mood for comedy so I googled: “The funniest book you ever read” and one that showed up on several people’s list was Cold Comfort Farm. I bought it and read it and was pretty well very amused throughout then doubled over with laughter at one or two key lines. I guess I must have been badly in need of… Read more »

    snowglobe
    Member
    snowglobe

    Honestly, I don’t care a whit if a friend passes on my recommendation. It’s only an opportunity for sharing and we can always share something else. The most intriguing part of your post was ‘I love you’. I didn’t know what to do with it–do I have answer, “I love you back, Dave” or ignore it or offer a tepid, “I have warm feelings for you too, sir.” It certainly was (creative writing) food for thought! Thanks;))

    José Skinner
    Guest
    José Skinner

    As a short-story writer (primarily), I used to take offense when people would say, with various magnitudes of brightness, “Oh, I hate short stories!” (I’ve even heard that from literary agents, literally.) Now I just fall back on what Jerry Garcia said about the Grateful Dead: It’s like licorice, some people hate it and some people really love it. And I continue to recommend short-story collections. I am currently savoring Thomas McGuane’s *Cloudbursts*.

    José Skinner
    Guest
    José Skinner

    David Duhr: If you’re casting about for Texas-related books to review for the Observer, you might check out Elizabeth Wetmore’s forthcoming VALENTINE, set in Odessa.

    Elissa Malcohn
    Guest
    Elissa Malcohn

    Not exactly answering your question here, but I loved Orlean’s The Library Book, which you had recommended to me (thanks!). I in turn recommended it to an online friend, who had worked in a library and is now retired. She rarely reads nonfiction, but she loved the book, too — except that it made her feel homesick for her old job.

    I don’t invest much psychological energy in my book recommendations. When I give books as gifts, I try to match them to the recipient’s personality. Usually I guess right, but not always.




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