The Dangerous Business of Recommending Novels

And the Dangerous Business of Reading Recommendations

“Please read these books and tell me what you think”
(Library books, by CCAC North Library. Licensed under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Someone lends you a book, telling you it’s “fantastic,” “will change your life forever,” or that you “have to read it.” You take and swear you’ll read it. Then it sits on your bookshelf for the next twelve months, while you stare at it and promise yourself you will read it when you have time.

Why is it sometimes so hard to read books that people recommend to you?

I find this reaction very strange, but I do it myself. Someone can describe a book and it might sounds exactly what I’d be interested in, but I still put off reading it. Maybe I’m scared it can never measure up to my hopes. Maybe I’m not one hundred percent positive that whoever recommended it to me actually understands what I like. Or maybe I’d just prefer to have the thrill of discovery for myself. But still, it’s hard enough to find good books, so you’d think it would help to have books recommended to me. And it is nice. I do enjoy most of what people give me, once I convince myself to actually read it. I can think of three possible reasons for this reaction though:

1.) We’ve all had someone tell us we’ll “love” something, but then we don’t. It’s like when a joke is supposed to be “hysterical,” but once someone actually tells the joke, it just falls flat. By raising expectations beforehand, which is kind of part of recommending a book (after all, who says, “this book isn’t all that great, but you have to read it?”), you also risk that the book won’t live up to your description. And everyone’s reaction to books does tend to be personal. Sometimes you just aren’t in the mood for a happy book when you read it, so what came off as “sweet and charming” to your friends, comes off as “syrupy” to you.

So, basically, you’re afraid the book can’t possibly be as good as you were told, so you put off reading it rather than tell your friend your real opinion of it.

2.) Or, possibly, you’re afraid your friends don’t know you as well as they think they do. Maybe you’ve got a friend that gushes over any work with a boy and girl falling in love as “soooooooooo romantic!” or “soooooooooooo suspenseful!” But to you, the books are just mushy or terribly cliché. Someone will tell you there’s no way you could not love Twilight. You like romance novels, right, and Twilight is a full of romance! So you’re pretty hesitant to believe every book people tell you is perfect for you, actually is.

3.) Or maybe you just feel contrary. I don’t know if it’s just me who does this, but if someone tells me I’ll love something, I always wonder how do you know? No one likes to feel like their reactions are predictable and obvious (though maybe mine are). Or if someone tells me a book will change my life, I get nervous and wonder if I want my life to change (or I get cynical and think every book gets called life-changing, when very few actually are). It’s probably a similar reaction to being told you have to read a book for English class – it might be the greatest novel ever, but because it’s assigned you just know you’ll hate it. Case in point, I didn’t take the opportunity to re-read Persuasion when it was assigned in university, relying instead on my very hazy memory of the plot, despite the fact the book is Jane Austen. I still dislike Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids, because I was made to read them in school. And when someone tells you a book is a “classic” – the word “classic” can mean so many different things! It could be a potboiler, like Dracula, or a depressing assessment of humanity, like Lord of the Flies. I always stubbornly think, “classic doesn’t necessarily mean good.”

By no means does this post mean to stop recommending me books! I love books, always will. I just want to analyze my reluctance to start new books for a moment, when I usually enjoy almost anything once I start reading. But I have had a mixed bag with some recommendations, from the library trying to convince me every fantasy book was “Hotter than Potter” when very few were (though I did stumble upon Artemis Fowl this way), to the one elementary teacher who kept throwing these ancient, ugly books at me that I enjoyed almost every time I read them (“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said, and he was right). I guess I just need to spend a bit of time in anticipation and nervousness before I really plunge into something. And so my stack of books-to-read might grow ever higher, but at least I do slowly read them.

Do you have the same problem when people recommend books to you? Why do you think people would be reluctant to start reading a book recommended to them?


Filed under Bookish Thoughts

2 responses to “The Dangerous Business of Recommending Novels

  1. Alexia

    Ahah, that’s weird, I was just having the same conversation with a friend a few days ago, but about movies instead of books. I hate it when someone tries to make me watch one by saying “Greatest movie of all time, it will change you life, go see it” cause truth is, I’ll spend the whole movie expecting that moment that is gonna take my breath away. It never comes though, and I find myself a little cheated. Funny thing is, if I had gone to see the movie without anyone telling me it was the best there is I would have liked it. But my expectations were just too high. But it kind of works the other way around : sometimes I’m so prepared to see something awful that I end up liking it, since I was expecting the worst.

    People are always recommending books to me, cause they know I read a lot, but it’s very rare that I read them right away. Maybe I just don’t want to force myself to read something just to please someone. The thing is, I don’t mind sharing titles but if you feel obligated to read something just to please someone you’re never gonna be able to enjoy it. The flaw with that theory, though, is that once in a while you do start the book just to please someone and you end up liking it anyway ! Books always find a way to surprise you, don’t you think 🙂 ?


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