The other week, I put out a book request that met with some interesting results. This was partly in the way I phrased the question. Initially, I issued a simple request for book recommendations. This was poor judgment on my part, because I am never at a loss for books to read, and in general I am a far better judge of my own reading interests than most of my facebook friends (to whom the request was issued.) The funny thing to me, however, was how the question was answered. I think, when most people are asked for a book recommendation, their answers fall into one of the following categories:
1) The most recent book they read and liked,
2) A Classic,
or 3) The book they think you are most likely to enjoy.
The problem, at least for me, is that none of these are compelling reasons for me the recommended book. Most people who fall into category 1 recommend said book because it is on their mind, fresh in their memory, and they want to discuss it with someone fast before while they are still on their book-completion buzz.
As for category 2, I am always interested in reading a Classic, and so no matter what particular Classic it is, I plan to read it sooner or later. Also, it is a pretty risk-free recommendation. It is hard for anyone to say you have bad taste in books if you told them to read something by Hemingway, or Dickens, or Nabokov, and they didn’t happen to like it. In general, these authors are so well respected that criticizing the authors reflects poorly on the taste of the critic. If your selection goes amiss, the worst you are likely to hear is “it just wasn’t my type of book” rather than “that was freaking awful, why on earth did you think I’d enjoy that crap?” Also, this recommendation amuses me because I believe the person who makes it is generally trying to signal how smart and well-read they are.
As for number 3, I have already said that I usually believe myself to be a better judge of what I am likely to enjoy than most of the other people I know.
So, after I put out this initial recommendation and was met with a series of answers falling into the above categories, I realized my mistake and rephrased my request. The funny thing was, even though a number of the same people responded, the recommendations they gave after the re-phrasing were almost completely different. The request I made was this:
I, personally, will often read a book which I may or may not enjoy immensely when I finish it. However, as time goes on, my thoughts return frequently to these books regardless of the pleasure I gained while reading them. Sometimes, I will read a book and like it a lot, but forget it within two or three months. But with these other books, phrases or ideas come back to me long after my initial impression has faded away, and I find that I have a much better opinion of the book three months down the road than I did when I had first finished it. There are many of these books that I keep hidden away in the back of my mind; a quiet library of highly-esteemed literature housing selections surprising even to me.
These are the books I wanted to hear about when I asked for recommendations. I wanted to know about that book (sometimes there are many) we all keep hidden, but which we burn to share. The thing is, when we are asked for just one book, and we only have a single shot at recommending something, there is a pressure to offer something really good–something we really think everyone ought to read, even if it isn’t our all-time favorite, like the Bible in every hotel room. Even if it isn’t the book we really wish we could say.