What I Mean When I Recommend Books


I don’t remember when I first started taking book recommendations to heart. Middle school, when a close friend was rapidly reading through Stephen King? When my dad first handed me a copy of Earth Abides? When the first teacher who assigned me to read Animal Farm encouraged me to give it a couple of years and then read it again on my own (which, I did, and which was a good suggestion)? When I was in grad school, and a peer read aloud from Matthew Dickman or pushed Ashley Capps or Yusef Komunyakaa into my hands

I also don’t remember when I first began seriously recommending books to people. Probably, when I found other readers, who read similar things, because I’ve always had other readers in my life. Or more likely, when I felt I’d read enough to say — regardless of how much I’d personally enjoyed a book, This might resonate with you or This author writes similar stories or Have you read _________? It fits well with the project you’re doing / your research interest / your desire to read Southern lit that isn’t Faulkner.

I’m reflecting on this, because there’s a certain intimacy to recommending a book to someone, or taking someone up on their recommendation. It can imply you know something about them (or think you do*). It can imply that you care enough about the person to share something that you liked, which is a way of sharing a part of yourself. Even if you didn’t like the book, you still open up something of yourself through an honest (meaning, a book you actually read, not just one you read reviews of) book recommendation.

Taking a book recommendation is similarly intimate. It can be a way of saying, I trust your opinion on books, or I’ve noticed we read similar books or you seem well read and I want to be able to talk about books with you. It can be a way of saying, I want to better understand you, so I’ll read this thing you recommended. It can be a way of saying thank you for being vulnerable enough to recommend something in the first place.

Either recommending a book, or taking the recommendation, can be a lot of things.

For me, recommending a book — or taking a recommendation of a book — is a way of showing love.

A man I care about in ways I don’t quite understand recently recommended The Art of Racing in the Rain. I picked it up from the library today and I look forward to starting it, because when he spoke about it, he said it was putting him through the emotional wringer — and this is a man who holds his emotions close.

I recently recommended The Orchardist to a friend who is choosing to live a life close to the earth because that’s what the characters do — and also because part of the book takes place in a small Washington town she lived near for two years, and because the writing is gently gorgeous and quiet and the story focuses on living not only for oneself alone, and what this means.

I fell in love with The Night Circus, a book about star-crossed lovers and magic and dreams, and recommended it to someone who probably didn’t know, at least at the time, that he was one of the first people to teach me to believe in love and magic and laughter again.

I could add to this list for a long time. Because, in truth, there so many books that belong on a list like this. But, that is not the point of this post.

The point, instead, is that in a world where our friends and family are scattered, recommending books is a way to foster feelings of closeness. Recommending, or exchanging, books can be a form of mutual aid.

One friend and I, when we lived in different states, had an informal book club. We switched off who got to choose, and then we exchanged emails about our thoughts on the book. At the time, this was life-sustaining for me: I was finishing my graduate thesis, and then I was moving to a new state where I knew no one, but more important, I was at a transition point in my life and afraid of the unknown nexts.

This email-based book club gave me something to ground myself with, and someone to grow with.

This friend and I still exchange book recommendations, though we talk about our thoughts on shared books less. Shared books, even when we don’t talk extensively about them, are a way for us to connect, not only to each other, but to the sparkle of the world that so often gets lost in the drudgery of the everyday.

Because the world is a fucking beautiful place, and books are one of the spots where  beauty gets immortalized. And by beauty, I mean the beautiful and damned: the triumph, the lies, the slow-kindled romance, the dreams built together and how inevitably those dreams end. I mean the heartbreak. I mean the diseases or dictators or colonists or tsunamis that wipe out a population. I mean the strangers coming to town and the heroes going on a journey and how this is the same story from different points of view. I mean a starfish, that probably wasn’t even real (but who the hell cares?), reaching from the ceiling of a sea cave to touch the tide, and it’s own reflection.

Books are a way to to repopulate ghost towns inside ourselves we didn’t even know existed.

So, what I mean, when I recommend a book or take a recommendation, is: thank you, I care about you, I love you. There is beauty in this world I hope we share.

 

The feature image is from Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands.

 

*I dislike when people — often, but not always, verbose men who have taken no time to get to know me, or my interests, or my background — recommend books they simply think everyone should read. These people usually preface the recommendation by telling you also how you’ll feel about the book, “You’ll love…” “You’ll get a kick out of…” without hedging this at all by including something as simple as I think or as detail-focused as Based on the fact you’re currently reading this Christopher Moore book, you’d probably get a kick out of this other Chris Moore book.

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