The Anxiety of Recommending Books to Other People

A few days ago, a friend flying to Texas for the weekend texted me to ask for a book recommendation.

“I need your help!” she said. “Airport reading…for a beat-down mom with no alone time and constant interruptions. Needs to hold attention, move along and be easy to pick back up. GO!”

The request gave me some anxiety because 1). That’s a lot of loaded criteria, 2). I am not a beat-down mom with no alone time, and 3). What holds my attention easily might not do the same for someone else. Especially if that person is in a completely separate stage of life and has a whole set of interests and experiences different from my own.

Needless to say, the question stirred up some fears in me. What if I steered her wrong? What if I recommended something that I love, and she winds up hating it? What if she stops trusting my opinion and never asks for it again?

Everyone likes being seen as an expert. For those of us who take reading seriously, being the one friends and family members turn to for recommendations can be humbling. But it also comes with a lot of responsibility, and the pressure to make the perfect call. Nothing is worse than enthusiastically talking up a book to a friend, and then watching as they struggle to compliment it when you ask what they thought.

Loving any piece of culture – whether it’s books, movies, TV shows, albums, or something else – is often a very personal, sensitive experience. When we truly love a story and its characters, we internalize that affection and take it as a personal slight against our person when someone else doesn’t love it as much as we do. It can then be a scary thing to recommend it to someone else. In some ways, we are asking another person to validate our love. If they don’t, it’s easy to grow defensive or wonder what on earth is wrong with that person. Worse still, you might wonder if something’s wrong with yourself.

I see this all the time with the middle school students I work with. Some of them are unabashedly unashamed in their love for Star Wars or Taylor Swift, but with even the slightest comment or question from their peers, just the mere hint that what they love might not be as cool as they think, they immediately re-think their enthusiasm. It might not turn them off of that thing forever, but it can give them pause, and that alone is a shame.

Not that I blame them. I remember this clearly from my own adolescence. I was very careful with whom I shared that I loved Harry Potter, even though it was a global phenomenon. By that point, anyone who didn’t love Harry Potter was more of an outsider than someone who did. As a theater nerd, I deeply loved musical theater soundtracks, but when my friends asked what music I liked, I would just shrug and say “I don’t really know.”

Now that I’m older, I’m much more comfortable in my own skin, more secure in my likes and dislikes. I care less whether or not others love the books that I love. And I strive to better understand other people’s likes or dislikes. Better still, it often leads me to try something I might never have tried, and find something I love that I would never have known existed.

As my friend’s text showed, recommending reading can still cause anxiety, especially when there’s a deadline involved. But I’m at the point now where I can confidently talk about my own experiences with a book and admit that what I like might not be for everyone. And that’s okay.

In the end, I hope she likes the book I chose, mostly because I want her to have a hassle-free, enjoyable trip. But if she doesn’t, I have the feeling our friendship will still survive.

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