Our Reading Lives

No Pressure: Suggesting vs. Recommending a Book

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Are you one of those readers people come to for book recommendations? I am, and I have to say that when someone asks me to recommend a book for them, I am at once excited and filled with trepidation. I mean, I love talking about books. But I get nervous when someone eagerly yet naïvely expects me to be able to come up with a fantastic book for them on the spot. How is it, exactly, that you can recommend something so personal as a book that another person will love?

In library lingo, this multi-faceted, complex thing of recommending books is called reader’s advisory, but it’s not, to my knowledge, a term that anyone who hasn’t gone to library school really knows. And interestingly enough, a lot of librarians who are experts in this field of reader’s advisory consciously do not use the word “recommend” when they talk about bringing books and readers together. Instead, they use the word “suggest.”

What’s the difference, you ask? While some people might say this is just a silly semantic distinction, I think the argument in favour of using “suggest” is pretty compelling, and it addresses a lot of my issues with what I call the pressure or burden of being asked to recommend books to people, sometimes people you don’t even know! (People who work in bookstores and libraries know my pain, right? When patrons or customers ask you to recommend a book to give to their Grandma for Christmas or simply say they want a “good book.”)

When someone recommends something to you—be it a book or anything else—it’s a personal endorsement, right? It’s like saying: hey, I loved this thing, you will love it too! Or else it’s a kind of here-I-know-what’s-good-for-you situation, like when someone recommends that you start taking vitamins. Either way, it’s an awkward state of affairs.

In her book Reader’s Advisory Service in the Public Library, librarian Joyce Saricks explains it this way: “We all know how difficult it is to tell someone that we really did not like the book they insisted we would love.” We readers have all had that happen to us, right? You return a book that a fellow reader lent you and have to admit that you didn’t fall in love with it the same way they did. It makes both the recommender and recommendee feel icky.

I also don’t like the feeling of recommending books to people as if I’m some kind of end-all-be-all to so-called good books. Just because I’m book-crazy and a librarian-in-training doesn’t mean I know what book you (or your Grandma) will love. I mean, no one except that person can be an expert on what books will jive with them on any given day.

That’s why I like the idea of “suggesting” books rather than “recommending” them. If I suggest a book, and that’s not what you had in mind, that’s cool. If I suggest a book, and you read it and think it’s crap, I won’t be personally offended. If one suggestion isn’t the right fit, I can make more. Suggesting takes the pressure off.

So next time you’re inclined to either ask for or give advice about what books to read next, try not using the word “recommendation.” Or, you know, do whatever you like. It’s just a suggestion.