How to recommend a book

Listening to the latest episode of Dear Book Nerd (Episode 31) reminded me of a question I got from a friend a few weeks ago. This friend has built a reputation for herself as a bookish girl among her friends. Now, her friends are pestering her for book recommendations. She panicked.

Recommending books is an art. To be a good book recommender, one has to read widely to have a stock of go-to books to draw from. I find it also helps to scour book review sources like Booklist, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly so that I can talk about books I don’t plan on reading. This is step one and is easy enough if you’re a member of the bookish tribe. Step two is where the art comes in.

When someone asks me for a book recommendation, I subject them to a mini-interrogation to find out their bookish tastes. There are few things I find as frustrating as people who tell me that they’ll read anything and refuse to give me any other leads. (Of course these people won’t read just anything.) When someone wants a book recommendation from me, I always ask:

  1. What are your favorite books? Why are they your favorites?
  2. What book have you hated? Why did you hate it?
  3. What are your tolerance levels for sex, language, and violence?

Questions one and two are the most important and the most difficult to get good answers for. Aside from the former English majors I talk to, few people know how to talk about books. Question one often needs clarifying questions. Did you like the characters? Did you like the story line? Was it the setting that hooked you?

I usually have better luck with question two. For some reason, it’s always easier to talk about books we’ve hated. There are exceptions to this, of course. The third question Rita Meade and her guest host tackled on Episode 31 of Dear Book Nerd is a great example of how tricky recommending a book can be. (I hope that Ms. Meade forgives me for poaching one of her questions.) This question is a typical starting book for a book talk:

Dear Book Nerd,

I read a wide range of books, but have found that there is one kind of book that I have never been able to finish. Despite many attempts at different writers and genres, I have always found Russian authors impossible to read. I have tried reading: Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita (this one I got half-way through) to name a few, but I have never found a Russian author that I have liked. Do you have any suggestions??

Lee (Dear Book Nerd, Episode 31)

Because this question came in to Dear Book Nerd via email, it’s not possible for Meade to ask for more detail. (She mentions this at one point in the episode.) As I listened to Meade try to pick titles from the vast tundra that is Russian literature for this reader, I wished that I knew why those three books turned Lee off. Was it the length of the books? Was it the strangeness of Russian culture and history? Why does Lee want to read Russian literature? If we knew the answers to these questions, it would be easier to find the right books, stories, plays, or poetry for Lee.

The last question of my list is just for calibration.

From these three questions, I sift through my recollections of books I’ve read (or read about). For someone looking for a good love story, I recommend These is My Words. For someone who wants a ripping yarn, I dig up Robert Louis Stevenson or a thriller writer. For a reader who wants something different, I point them towards Neil Gaiman or China Miéville. I usually end up grabbing a stack of books from various genres and talk them up for the reader and let them pick a few that really appeal to them.

Few things make me as happy as the sight of a reader marching over to the circulation to check out a stack of books I’ve found for them.

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