Recommended Reading, Pt. 2

Last week, I began a discussion the craft of making book recommendations. This week, I’d like to give some concrete advice on the subject. There’s a right way and a wrong way to make recommendations.

Many Book Group Buzz readers are librarians, and if you are, I hope that you have at least passing familiarity with the art and science of “readers’ advisory,” the term we use in the profession to describe the process of guiding readers to the next book. But because other readers are not librarians, and because it often does us good to step back from our own jargon, I’m going to phrase this discussion in more general terms.


The most common mistake people make when recommending books is assuming that everyone should read and enjoy the books the same books that they love. Whether making a private recommendation to a close friend or suggesting a title for consideration by a group, the basic principle is the same: consider what the audience likes to read, not just what you like or what the literary establishment has endorsed. While we can probably make an objective case for why some books are outstanding, this does not mean that every reader will enjoy every great book, or that particular readers won’t find pleasure in books that a brilliant critic might find problematic.


I’m not even entirely comfortable with “recommending” books to others. To me, that term implies some degree of pressure. I prefer to think of it as “suggesting.” Nothing will turn off a person whom you’re trying to convince to read a book faster than the hard sell. Make the case, but be subtle. Don’t pressure potential readers to start the book today. Don’t badger them for a report. Plant the seed and wait: if it’s going to take, it will grow at its own pace into the desire to read the book. Even better, scatter plenty of seeds–every suggestion won’t blossom, but some will.


This should be obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed book recommendations with little or no explanation of why the book should be read. While it may not be a matter of life and death (at least not in the immediate sense), reading a book does take a serious time commitment. You can’t expect a potential reader to make a blind leap. Start with what’s special about the book. There’s very little that’s new under the sun, so why this book instead of the dozens of others that it resembles?


This is especially important in the group setting of your book club. Unless everyone was assigned to read the book, nobody wants to hear you babble through the entire plot. It’s boring and it kills the incentive to read the book. Besides, there are many reasons that people choose to read books besides the plot line. Here’s where the art of suggestion comes in: Tease readers with tantalizing details: a snippet of plot, introductions to fascinating characters, a connection to their personal lives, a dose of atmosphere, a wonderful scene, an engrossing dilemma, a fascinating fact about the author. That’s when curiosity turns into the compulsion to read.


While I’m sure you’re brilliant, you will find more success in suggesting titles if you add the weight of others’ opinions to your own. Particularly in formal situations, such as arguing for selection of a book by a group, or making professional recommendations to library users, it’s good to back up your suggestion with the opinions of others: good reviews from sources likely to appeal to the target readers, award citations, or even just more information about the title or the author.


You will find people more open to your suggestions if you take some of theirs. Book advice is a conversation, not a lecture. In the long run, that conversation can only be sustained if parties on both sides find common ground, giving and taking ideas in the areas where you find a shared interest.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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