RJS: We just passed the halfway mark on 2012 and did our massive “best of the year so far” round-up, and it got me thinking. Most of the books I read these days are recommendations straight from friends like you, muffin. We are separated by several states (it’s a sad story, I know), but the interweb lets us hang out, and it’s made personally customized recommendations from afar A Totally Real Thing. So this week, I want to talk about recommendations–about the art-slash-science-slash-magic of recommending books. Up for it?
LH: Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry.
RJS: We both do a ton of recommending–IRL and virtually–and in a variety of settings. When someone asks you for a book rec, where do you start?
LH: First, I light a few candles and put on Barry White. Oh, wait, no, that’s something else. Let me start again: First, I always say, “Tell me a few of your/their favorite books.” That gets the hamster in my wheel going. Hahaha – that sentence just made me laugh out loud! It sounds unintentionally dirty. But you know what I mean. I focus on subject or themes from the books they mention and then start going through my mental card catalog.
RJS: Barry White, eh? I always thought of you as more of an Al Green kind of girl. I do something similar (but I prefer Ben Harper, “Please Me Like You Want To”) and ask about the last book they really loved. I don’t find myself recommending books to total strangers all that often, thanks to the magic of social media, but you do it all the time in your life as the Demon Bookseller of Fleet Street. How does that work?
LH: Holy cats, it’s so much fun! I love making recommendations – there’s something so satisfying about getting the right book in someone’s hands. It’s like a book is Tinkerbell, and the more people clap for it, the longer it lives on. In fact, I love making recommendations so much that I set up a program that enables me to make them even when I’m not slinging books at RiverRun Bookstore. I am that much of a recommendation fiend!
RJS: And it’s called Paperback to the Future, which is basically the coolest name ever. I picture you hopping in a Delorean to deliver books to your customers, hair flying in the breeze. (Please don’t disabuse me of this illusion.) I’m not even going to ask if there’s a formula for giving good recommendations–that would be crazyinsane–but I am curious about what you look for in recommendations. Of the floppity jillion book recs that fly at you every day, what’ll make you pay attention to one?
LH: Well, let’s use you an as example. I know, for a fact, that one of your favorite books is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. *pauses to let squeals die down* You tell me that, and I reach in my brain for something similar. Now, Irving learned his tricks from Charles Dickens…as did Robertson Davies. So, I say to you, “Have you ever read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies?” And you say…
RJS: I say no, while silently cursing you for having read EVERYTHING and reminding me that I am the less-well-read of the Well-Readheads. But it’s okay. I’m not sensitive about it or anything.
LH: And to this I would say “OH EM GEE, Fifth Business is soooooo good! It’s about how one small, seemingly insignificant action can send life spiraling on a different trajectory.” I would probably say this while hopping up and down. I get pretty excited when I talk about books. I was actually caught on camera making recommendations once. What do you look for in a recommendation?
RJS: Well, if someone is asking me for a recommendation, the first thing I look for is: can I actually recommend the kind of book they’re looking for? Lit fic, I’ve got you covered. Regency romance? Not so much. When someone recommends a book TO me, the “make Rebecca pay attention” algorithm is a mix of 1) how well they know me/how good of a feel they have for my reading habits; 2) if they’ve recommended books to me in the past (and if so, how on-target those recs were); and 3) if I’m currently interested in that type of book. That’s not to say I won’t take recommendations from strangers, but the recs from readers I know and trust get priority. What about you?
LH: It’s quite the same for me. I take all those things into account. I love getting recommendations. Just because I work in a bookstore doesn’t mean I know about every book, as much as I try. Everyone has gaps in their education. My recent favorite recommendation was a 30-year-old novel called Handling Sin by Michael Malone. Tomcat told me about it. I had never heard of it, but he said it was the funniest book he’s read, so I read it, too. And it really is wonderful.
LH: “Book Recommenders Love It Under the Covers.”
RJS: Co-Ed Naked Reading! (Remember those? The 90s were great.) “Strip your clothes, not your covers.”*
LH: I think we could do this all day. But we have books that must be read! So I will end this with a shameless plug: In September, look for Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Booksellers. Hans Weyandt from Micawber’s Books in St. Paul collected lists of favorite handsells from booksellers around the country (including moi), and Ann Patchett wrote the introduction. It’s an epic nerdpurr!
RJS: Being able to say you sorta wrote a book with Ann Patchett is the epic-est of nerdpurrs. And writing a post about book recommendations in which you recommend a book about book recommendations is the meta-est of meta. So we should stop before we rip a hole in the universe.
Tell us, readers: what makes a good book rec for you?
*Many, many thanks to designer Ryan Bradley for making us the awesome graphic and proving that Twitter is in fact the land of “ask and ye shall receive.” Follow him @rwrkb.