Recommendation Exploration, Part 1

An important part of the book club experience is using what we learn from our fellow readers to find books that will suit us. But as book clubs succeed and fail in selecting or reviewing books collectively, individual members succeed and fail at the art of recommendation. It’s a subject worth exploration, and in this post I’ll examine the process by which we suggest books to club friends.

Sometimes suggestions are artful. When a match is made, lights going off in the potential reader’s eyes: “I like books about that subject. And in that setting! And those kind of characters!” When it’s done right, the potential reader latches onto the book without anyone saying directly, “I think that you should read this book.”

But sadly, many recommendations are made badly. Like the gift giver picking presents that he or she wants, not what recipients might like, an overenthusiastic reader can push a book on someone who’s clearly uncomfortable with what’s being offered. The victim of such white elephants is placed in the awkward position of being perceived as rude in rejecting the unwanted gift or having to read and report on a book that there’s not much hope he or she will ever appreciate. Neither scenario is pretty.

When the urge comes to recommend your newest favorite, take a step back. As generously motivated as the thought is, you won’t make friends by trying to force the book into the hands of the first reader who says hello. There are more reasons why this will go wrong than space to explore them in this post. Here’s the better way:

First, talk about the book to the full group, instead of cornering an individual. If your group doesn’t include time to talk about side reading, consider adding it to at least some of your meetings. It’s fun, and it makes a better forum than forcing readers to corner each other before, after, or during a refreshment break when they’d rather be socializing. If a book is worth promoting, sing its praises to everyone at once. This avoids the awkward overstep–all of the unknowable reasons that a particular reader might have for not wanting to take on a “gift” at the moment it’s offered.

The most important thing to remember when recommending (and the same idea is worth keeping in mind as we review books in groups, too) is that reading is a subjective experience. Even the greatest books will not please every reader or make a good fit with their current reading needs. Instead of thinking about quality as an absolute and single measure, as a thumbs-up-or-down review, it’s better to  divide focus, identifying all of the aspects of a book (in librarianship, we call them appeal factors) that might make a particular reader like it.

By all means sell the book, but not with generics: “It’s the best book ever,” “The writing is fantastic,” or “It’s a real page-turner.” Just as good discussion gets into specifics, so should your suggestion. Don’t spend much time recounting plot details either, keep that to a bare minimum. Think instead in terms of “readers who like _______ will really love this book.” That blank can be filled in many ways: particular subject matters; the different ways in which writers use language; settings in place or time that particular readers find fascinating; characters who are like themselves or of a type that they find intriguing; books paced in a certain way; books that resemble other popular titles… the list of potential appeals is almost endless, and identifying the important ones for the book that you think others should try is the core of the art of recommendation.

Finally, remember that there is a flip side: qualities or content that will make it difficult for certain readers to enjoy the book. Don’t put as much energy into this part of the review or recommendation as you give to the positives, and don’t be too prudish, but include a gentle warning if the book takes strong political or religious positions, includes strong language, violence or sexuality, or uses a style that some readers find difficult to enjoy, such as a plethora of big words, strongly colloquial speech, non-linear plotting or frequent switches in narrators, unlikable or untrustworthy protagonists, black humor, or minimalism that requires extensive reading between the lines. In identifying these elements, don’t judge. Many people like books with each of the qualities just mentioned, so just mention that they are there, don’t apologize for their presence.

With a little practice, you can become a great matchmaker between books and readers, a master of the art of recommendation. Next week, I’ll look at how libraries, online booksellers, and book social media sites have approached the practice of recommendation.

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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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