Monday, October 22, 2012

Struggling with Recommendations

I was browsing through some book-related online discussions recently and came across the topic of recommendations. Who recommends books to you? Who do you recommend books to? Does most of this happen online or face-to-face? Which book do you find yourself recommending again and again?

Pretty much all of my book discussions happen online. I do have some real life friends who are into reading as much as I am, but we're so far away that I always see their activity on GR and make comments and all of this back and forth happens before the next time we actually see each other in person. Mostly, though, I follow book blogs, I'm in a GR reading group, and pretty much all of the recommendations that I get are a) not necessarily personal, tailored-to-me recommendations, and b) exclusively online. Am I missing something? By not having a close-knit group, or a couple people who know my tastes and are recommending things to me personally? I don't know, maybe. But I think the "missing" part might be the social aspect more than the reading opportunities, and as we all know, social activities don't necessarily have a huge draw for me. So, maybe I'm not missing anything.

But the questions regarding recommendations I make to others . . . I really don't. I was thinking about it and trying to remember the last time I said to someone (online or otherwise), "you should really read this book." It just doesn't happen. I don't like to give personal recommendations, because I know that my own tastes are vastly different from other people. Not to say that I'm a unique little snowflake compared to everyone else, but that we're all unique little snowflakes. Sometimes I can't even figure out for myself what I liked, or didn't like, or what made a book really stand out for me. Looking at my 5-star book list, compared to my much larger 4-star list . . . what was it about these books that put them a cut above the rest? Sometimes I can pinpoint it, but more often I can't. And when I can, the answer is usually incredibly vague. So, if I can't even say what it is that's so great about this book, how can I in good conscience recommend it to anyone who may or may not be looking for the same things I am?

And when I'm cornered, when someone asks me point blank, "Should I read this book?" I always qualify my answer as much as possible. "Well, I thought such-and-such, BUT . . ." It's like I feel the need to put out a disclaimer that just because I liked something, I can't say the same for anyone else. As if other readers don't understand that what speaks to one person might not speak to another. I know it. I know other people know it. And yet I still don't want to be held responsible if someone doesn't like a book that I thought was great.

Even if it's someone who has very similar tastes, that's still no guarantee. GR has a "compare books" option where you can compare your books to another user's and see which books you have in common, and how similar your ratings are for those books. And it never fails that when I'm comparing with someone and we seem to be exactly on the same wavelength, there will always be at least one book that's way off. I gave it 4 stars; they gave it 1. I gave it 2 stars; they gave it 4. And that one book will make me very cautious, even if we agree on everything else; I would hate for my recommendation to be that one book that we don't agree on.

And I do the same thing whether I'm recommending to read a book, or recommending that it's not worth the time. Because, again, I'd hate for someone to not read a book they might love, just because I didn't care for it.


  1. I'm the same. Generally I don't like to recommend books to anyone because just because I liked it doesn't mean my friends would like it. I have quite a distinctive taste, even in school when we had to read novels for German Lit, there was this one book I liked where everyone else in my class hated it's guts and vice versa.

    We all seek different things when we pick up a book and have different backgrounds so the feelings every book and story evoke in us are different. How can I be sure that this book I loved is the right fir for another person? I don't think that's possible. When asked for a recommendation I usually go with: I can't recommend it but I loved this story very much, it's one of my favourites. It's the best I can do.

    1. The thing that just kinda baffles me is that we all know this! I shouldn't have to say, "just because I loved this doesn't mean you will," and yet I feel like I do. I just don't want to be the cause of someone's disappointment.

    2. Me neither, so I say it anyways just in case I'm dealing with someone who doesn't know :-)