• 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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    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

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

    david lemke

    If you’ve ever donated to a cause you know they like to send you follow-ups for more donations in a letter with lots of gifts inside; a note pad, a sheet of return address labels and such. One of those.

    frances hill

    How well I know, have a pile of those ‘gifts’ I use them as door prizes and grab bag gifts.

    frances hill

    depending on who I loan it to, whatever it takes!

    frances hill

    Not far from wrong, I did use a little muscle once to get a library book returned. Yeah it would be a story!

    frances hill

    long time ago, didn’t want to pay late fee on book he borrowed from me, twisted his thumbs like revving a dirt bike and waited at the door of his bedroom until he uncovered the book. Got it returned in time to avoid late fee. haven’t spoken to each other since.

    david lemke

    As long as you don’t leave a horse head on the bed.

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

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

    david lemke

    I’m leaving now…

    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

    Groan…

    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

    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?

    david lemke

    A woman in my local writer’s group says she’s read 100,000. She is handicapped and can’t sleep, so she reads. If you check out the top readers at Goodreads. the one at the top claims to have read 161508 books. There are 20 people who have read over 20,000. I’ve look the top reader up and apparently she has read zero books this year. Did she lie or is she dead? I thought there used to be more than just the one. For myself my estimate is somewhere around 2500, but I can remember 680 titles the last time I… Read more »

    david lemke

    Goodreads connects with Amazon. It works very quickly. And you can view an author’s entire bibliography. I read that one and that one, etc.. Also I just combed through shelves of my library and fished out all the ones “Read” and the ones with book marks for “Am Reading.”

    Bobbie

    Don’t waste your time rereading it. It’s a book that just didn’t click with you. As to the number of books I’ve read, If I was to go back to when I first learned to read, I’ve probably read 10,000 or more. I still try to read at least one a month that isn’t research or textbook type of reading. I’ve discovered a lot of very good unknown indie authors along with some better known author’s I hadn’t read before. I agree with those who say you need to read to learn what or what not to write.

    Bobbie

    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

    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.

    david lemke

    Yeah, looks like we’re down to two; one on the southside and one a mile away.

    david lemke

    A mile away, I could walk there even with a full bag of treasures. None near you? When they have their 20% 30% 40% 50% off one book sale multiple times a year I get four separate sets of coupons which, if I went each day would mean I dragged home as many as 16 books in a week. Explains why I have 3000 books.

    david lemke

    I hear that. We also do a lot of rummage and estate sales. sometimes we’ve picked up almost whole libraries of authors for 25 cents or 50 cents a book. Of course, if it’s a specific book we want, Amazon or Kindle gets it to us instantly or in a week at the most.

    Bobbie

    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

    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

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

    Bobbie

    Yes, I do remember one of those occasions and it was recently. I read Invisible and recommended it to a friend who had never read any of James Patterson’s books. He read it and loved it for the suspense and totally unexpected twist at the end. I’d love to be able to write a book that good. Oh, he hadn’t read any thrillers, keeping mostly to sci-fi.

    KevinW

    Yeah…I gave a friend a copy of “Confederacy of Dunces” and she loved it…she got the humor. And yes, I know this is not the most politically correct book in the world…I always wanted to know what happened to Ignatius after he went off with Myrna at the end…I always pictured him selling hot dogs and brandishing a plastic sword in Greenwich Village, and getting everyone in the White Horse Tavern arrested…

    Bobbie

    What fun is it if a book is ‘politically correct’? I love the off humor type of things as long as it doesn’t dissolve into the “Jackass’ type of stuff which I’ve never found funny.

    SusanH

    Once someone I worked with recommended Confederacy of Dunces to me, and he went on to become the Director of the local ACLU here. So I am surprised to hear it is considered not politically correct because he was entirely politically correct….I guess now I have to read it twenty years after he recommended it because I’m curious. It better be good… (that’s a warning)

    SusanH

    A group writing would be fun too.

    frances hill

    Yes, ‘The Heart’ by Peter O. Knight

    frances hill

    She was like me and couldn’t put it down! Guess we are both a bit vicious and gory.

    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 »

    KevinW

    The things we do for lo-oo-ve/Like walking in the rain and the snow…
    She wasn’t impressed that I finished The Greatest Novel Ever Written By Anyone Ever. She was bummed that I didn’t go on the Oprah show and jump up and down on her couch screaming “I looooove this book! Love love LOVE this book!” like Tom Cruise did.

    She didn’t like John Coltrane either. And there’s no way I was going to stand for that kind of negativity in my life…

    Bobbie

    I probably wouldn’t have gone for the mutant monks in a radioactive desert, but I would have read it simply because it was a gift and you had found value in it. There was nothing wrong with saying, “i read it and it wasn’t my cup of tea.” Liking different types of books is fine as long as you don’t try to discuss them. The plus side was that she did read. The negative was that she was closed minded about what you liked. I do like Coltrane but will pass on Irving and Leibowitz.

    Bobbie

    I’ll put it and Confederacy of Dunces on my list of books to read. I’ll see if get them through the library here. They sound different and I do read with an open mind, wanting to enjoy the book.

    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 »

    Susan

    Okay, this is it, but if you don’t find it funny it is your fault, especially if you don’t have any Irish ancestry. The book is How the Irish Speak English (I think). I’ll come back and correct it if I go home and find the title to be different than that. Two selections I remember off hand: “Said of the stride of a sexy woman wearing highheels: ‘She was a cat on scissors.'” “A reply in County Kerry to ‘How are you?: ‘Mostly upright.'” Can I have more than one pick? Because different things are funny at different times.… Read more »

    Susan

    Yes, Padraic O’Farrell. For me it’s just very specific little things hit my funny bone for whatever reason. Having read the Far Side for years, seeing hundreds of his cartoons, there is only one I remember because for some reason it just tore me up and that was of a woman, or was it a man, pushing a vacuum cleaner down a path, heading for a forest. The caption: Little did Hazel know that nature abhors a vacuum. That was the funniest thing I read that entire year, and now it doesn’t seem funny at all…

    David Duhr

    Really? Because even reading your write-up of it makes me laugh.

    KevinW

    Charles Addams had one of a financial advisor consulting with clients and telling them “Well, Mr & Mrs Farnsworth-Smythe, the market overall is doing very well, though undeniably there are some negative indicators at this time”, and meanwhile behind him the window is filled with suits jumping off the neighboring buildings. And no, suicide is not at all funny, but I’ve known enough financial pros that were full of b.s. to find that funny. There was a bit in one of the “Men In Black” movies…Will Smith is a New York cop chasing a suspect and he keeps yelling “Freeze!… Read more »

    SusanH

    I like Will Smith and the MIB a lot. That particular line I would find funny if he actually stopped to say “parentheses K” and spelled it out that way, did he?…

    KevinW

    I really liked the Andrew Vachss “Burke” novels, which are very dark but they all have these unexpected moments of comic relief.

    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;))

    KevinW

    Or like Shaft…
    “I love you, Shaft”,
    “I know, baby”.

    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*.

    Jose Skinner

    I’m the same—I just dip into a collection at random. However, an editor once told me that there are many who read them in order, so authors need to keep that in mind when putting the book together.

    Jose Skinner

    I toyed with putting the ones that seemed thematically similar together (even as “Parts”), then tried the opposite, then just did it by instinct—the order I might enjoy reading them in. Someone told me later that the last collection starts out with you guns and ends with oldsters, but I didn’t do that consciously.

    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.

    Jose Skinner

    Publicist is Jane Beirn jane.beirn@harpercollins.com

    I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good advance things. It comes out in spring, 2020.

    Jose Skinner

    There’s also Brian Carr’s Opioid, Indiana, as you probably know. I haven’t read.

    David Duhr

    I haven’t yet either, but I’ve got it.

    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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