The Delicate Science of Recommending Books You’ll Love

I have a love/hate relationship with recommending books to people.

I LOVE sharing my love of books.

But I hate having to do it on the spot.

Recommending books is a lot like ordering for someone at a restaurant. Sure, you can do it blindly. But shouldn’t you first make sure they’re not allergic to cilantro? Or find out if they’re vegetarian? Or keep in mind that they have a serious sweet tooth?

So…ask me to suggest a book for you and the next thing out of my mouth will be not a book title, but a set of questions.

What’s the last book you read and loved?

What are you in the mood for next?

What are you absolutely not in the mood for?

It also helps to know a bit about where you are emotionally. For example, I once suggested a book about a woman who was getting divorced to a friend who was having marital problems (she did not enjoy the book as much as I did).

All that being said, when you get it right, suggesting a book that someone ends up loving is as satisfying as hooking up two friends who end up getting married. Some of my greatest hits include:

41BTjQ6fjyLIn Malice, Quite Close by Brandi Lynn Ryder – I suggested this to a friend who was looking for a smart, dark, and edgy mystery. It’s about a French expat/art aficionado who becomes enamored with a 15-year-old girl, kidnaps her, and stages her death. Years later, the pair are living an opulent life in a town known for its art, but when a series of paintings are discovered, all their secrets and manipulations threaten to come to surface.

 

 

 

downloadOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King – I’ve suggested this memoir to so many writers (really, you cannot go wrong with this one). King retraces his steps from his beginnings as a struggling writer to his daily writing habits and insights of the (not-so-recent) present. I highly recommend getting this one on audiobook and listening to it during your next road trip, or when you drive around town doing errands. Because it’s narrated by King himself, it ends up feeling like he’s your personal writing coach.

 

 

510TBr3TCILThis Burns My Heart by Samuel Park – Some books break your heart so tenderly you feel more human having read them. If you’re a sucker for a good “what if?” story or enjoy rooting for star-crossed lovers, this is a book for you. Set in post-war South Korea, This Burns My Heart is the story of a Soon-Ja Choi, who falls in love with a young medical student on the eve of her wedding, but, bound by a sense of duty to her family, chooses to go through with her loveless arranged marriage. As her story unfolds and the man she fell in love with remains in the background of her mind, thoughts, and life, you wonder if we can ever truly right our wrong choices, or live the life we should have.

What books have you recommended to friends with great success? What books have you suggested that friends hated?

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

This article has 15 Comments

      1. THE CORRECTIONS is one. I know, I know, J-Franz gets enough attention without me adding to it, but seriously, that book blew my mind. ELEANOR & PARK is the other one I’m foisting on people lately. I’ve harped about it here before and will keep harping to anyone who will listen.

  1. I do the same, Natalia. Figure out what type of reader they are first before I recommend anything. It think it has to do with the teacher in me–we were hammered to “differentiate” and “know our audiences”. lol. I still haven’t read Stephen King’s book. Guess I need to get on that.

    1. ON WRITING is fab. I love that it’s so practical. There are other books out there, which shall remain nameless, that basically tell people to dance around and frolic in fairy dust and burn incense and that’s how you magically make a novel appear. But King is all, “Get your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. No excuses.” That’s more my style.

  2. I mostly don’t recommend books. I blog about them, particularly the ones that inspire or annoy me, but not a one-on-one recommendation. People like all different things — it’s too difficult too predict what will connect with who.

    Sometimes, if I know somebody really well, I’ll recommend a movie, but I that’s about it.

    Oh, and I recommend my stuff, but that’s different. 🙂

    1. I think movies are easier to recommend because they’re less of a time commitment. And though they’re engaging in very different ways than books are, I think reading, by its very nature, is so much more intimate. I mean, we experience the whole world, every description and scene and dialogue, in our minds. And because of that, the narrative interacts with some very complex and deep parts of ourselves, and biases we may not even realize we have.

  3. When I was small, a librarian I was semi in love with told me that the best way to show that I loved a book was to give it away. Now of course this was before ebooks and before I was ever concerned about book sales numbers. But this has really stuck with me. I don’t own a lot of books. I keep copies that are special to me because someone gave them to me or signed them. But other than that, if I have a physical copy of a book I find someone to gift it to when I’m done.

    And I agree that knowing who the person is makes all the difference. This month, everyone in the world has recommended A Fault in Our Stars to me and all I can think is “Do you even know me? How could you?”

    1. I’ve been avoiding reading The Fault in Our Stars for so long because I tend to shy away from over-hyped books in general and because it just feels like everyone recommends it to everyone, so I end up thinking exactly what you do (“what makes you think I would enjoy it, though?).

      I like the idea of giving books away but have to admit I’m too selfish. I want them all to myself, to hug and hold whenever I want. I’m happy to give other copies away, just not my own!

  4. I almost never feel comfortable recommending books to anyone because everyone has such different reactions and we each have such personal relationships with reading. That said, I’ve time and time again recommended my favorite nonfiction book HOUSE by Tracy Kidder — an amazing study in character — that I read long ago. For a long time it was my all-time favorite book. It was bumped from that position by THE THINGS THEY CARRIED — which I’ve also started to recommend. And just recently I read THE BLIND CORRAL which I would call a writer’s book (although it’s not about writing) and I have recommended to anyone who will listen!

    By the way, I too have not read THE FAULT IN OUR STARS — primarily for exactly the reason you state in comments: ” I tend to shy away from over-hyped books in general …”

    p.s. thanks for these great book recs. Two are already on my list, but the other (In Malice) I’ve added! Thank you!

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