I’ve written before in defense of recommending books I haven’t read; it’s pretty much a necessity for booksellers or librarians. But the truth is, I also commit what most people would consider a worse book recommendation crime: I recommend books I didn’t enjoy reading.
First off: some of my favourite books are ones I didn’t like reading. That may sound paradoxical, but I mean it earnestly. Everfair by Nisi Shawl was a book I crawled through reading. It’s an epic alternate history of the Congo that is told over decades and continents from a huge amount of point of view characters — I lost track of how many. Being buffeted from one POV to another over and over meant I probably never read more than 20 pages of that book at a time.
Despite my difficulty getting through it, there is no doubt in my mind that it’s one of my favourite books of all time. And the reason I love it is the same reason I struggled with it. The abundance of point of view characters meant seeing this situation from almost every possible angle, including the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, the white supporters of Everfair, and so many more. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had such a multifaceted narrative.
There’s good reason for the intricacy of the format, too. This is an ambitious novel that is grappling with colonialism, war, racism, grief, love, and betrayal. Getting so many perspectives means being able to see just how complex these subjects are. And alongside those big ideas are also fascinating, well-rounded characters with complicated relationships with each other.
In contrast, there are plenty of books I breezed through with a grin on my face that ended up with a three star rating. Those books were fun: the pacing and some kind of hook kept me pulled along through the story. But even as I enjoyed myself, I could see some pretty big issues that I was breezing over in the moment. I rate and review books based on what they’re trying to do, so I’m not comparing a fluffy feel-good romance to a hard-hitting lit fic title. Instead, I mean the books that have puzzling plot holes or questionable-at-best representation that can be overlooked when immersed in the story, but quickly make themselves known once you’ve turned the last page.
Books are shapeshifters. I often find that how I think of a book will change over time. A story that feels like a lifelong favourite when I first finish it may seem unremarkable a year later. A book that frustrated me while I was reading it might still be one I’m thinking about and reconsidering much later. So not enjoying the reading experience isn’t an automatic disqualification for me recommending it.
I can go one step farther, though: I often recommend books I don’t like, even on reflection. In fact, some of the books I recommend the most are ones I didn’t particularly enjoy.
When I worked at a bookstore, I got so many customers who came in looking for a “good book.” Any good book would do. They didn’t have a genre preference, or anything more specific. Just a guarantee that it would be good. I still see this idea in TikTok and YouTube videos that ask, “Can BookTok Be Trusted?” They read big BookTok books and report back on whether they live up to the hype or if BookTokers are lying to us.
The idea seems to be that there are good books and bad, and booksellers, librarians, reviewers, BookTokers, etc. are there to read them and place them in a category so you don’t have to. These gatekeepers heroically filter out the bad books before they can get to your TBR.
Of course, the truth is that everyone has different reading tastes, and your favourite book may be one I hated. That doesn’t mean either of us are wrong. Reading is just a highly subjective experience. You may be looking for an action-packed plot while I want something focusing on character and theme. You might want a challenging, hard-hitting read while I want something gentle and comforting.
I often wonder if people went into record shops and asked, “What’s a good song?” We seem to better understand that music tastes are wide and conflicting, and that you need more context to recommend an artist or album to someone.
I know that I have very specific reading tastes. After a lifetime of being completely submersed in books, I know exactly what I’m looking for: sapphic content; a philosophical approach; big, complicated ideas; a claustrophobic setting; underwater horror; gentle, cozy manga and middle grade graphic novels; cozy queer fantasy; and more — not necessarily at the same time. I tend to like books that focus on characters more than plot or setting. I zone out if a narrative gives too much visual description.
I’ve found my reading niche(s) through a lot of trial and error, although of course I’m always refining it — cozy manga was a new addition. I am also very aware that my tastes are not universal. It’s far more likely for the average reader, especially a casual one, to want a fast-moving plot than a slow one. And as strange as it may seem to me, “there are lesbians” isn’t a compelling selling point for everyone.
So, when I hear about someone looking for a fast-moving, funny fantasy series for kids, I’ll recommend the Percy Jackson series, even if it wasn’t for me. (Sorry, Riordan super fans!) The more specific the request, the more likely I’ll recommend a book that matches it, even if I didn’t love it. And no, I probably won’t tell them that I hated it. If there’s a particularly troublesome element, I’ll give a heads-up about it, but I won’t usually preface the recommendation with, “I hated this, but I think you’ll like it!”
So, the next time someone asks for a recommendation, consider moving beyond your personal favourites. Ask about the books they’ve loved — and the ones they’ve hated. Just like gift giving, put the other person’s preferences first instead of just getting them something you would love to receive. Or, as one of the laws of library science puts it: Every person their book. Every book its reader.