Recommending Books is Hard

Swapna Krishna

Staff Writer

Swapna is the Comics Editor at Book Riot. She's a Space Columnist for Paste Magazine and writes for Syfy Wire—Fangrrls, Tor.com, Bustle, and other sites. She co-hosts a podcast called Desi Geek Girls. You can find her incessant ramblings on Twitter at @skrishna. She lives outside Philadelphia.

A lot of people I know in my real life see me as an “expert” on reading. I read more than pretty much anyone I know (again, in real life only), so my friends come to me for book recommendations, advice, and to discuss books that they’ve read. It also makes for good small talk—when people find out what I do for a living, the first question out of their mouths is usually, “So, can you recommend a book you’ve read that I’d enjoy?”

It seems like a simple, innocuous question: Tell me what to read. Discuss what you’ve been reading with me. It’s what most of us book folk love to do and don’t get to do enough—talk about books with people who aren’t sitting on the other side of a computer.

Yet, for some reason, this question provokes a slightly ridiculous level of anxiety in me. Or, rather, it’s not the question that makes me anxious—it’s the fact that I almost always, in every instance, blank on what I’ve read. I can’t remember a single title, and so I’m standing there, trying to recall anything I’ve read recently and enjoyed, and I’m sure the other person is standing there thinking, “Does this person really read? HAVE I BEEN HAD??”

I’m pretty good at small talk, so it always baffles me that this happens, and that it happens as a matter of routine. It’s not that it’s happened once, or just a few times, but unless I’ve read something earth-shattering in the last week, it happens every single time this question is asked. Which is a lot. And I read a lot, and I love a lot of what I read, so I should be able to come up with just a title or two. But I can’t. Because of the pressure.

The pressure, you ask? Yes, I answer. Recommending books when I know nothing about a person’s taste in books is hard. If you tell me, “Hey I really enjoyed The Help. What other books would I like?” I can probably spout off five books immediately that you should read. But knowing absolutely nothing about the books you’ve enjoyed makes it hard. There are just too many awesome possibilities out there.

Also, if I know nothing about what you like, are you going to judge me if I recommend a book you hate? Night Film by Marisha Pessl was one of my favorite books of last year. I told everyone I know to read it; and some people came back to me slightly horrified. It’s a dark book, to be sure. They’d tried it and were very put off by how twisted the novel was. And deep down, I was wondering if they thought I was weird and twisted for enjoying it. (But you know what?? I AM WEIRD AND TWISTED AND I LIKE THAT IN MY READING.)

The fact is that there are just too many good books out there, and I want to recommend all of them to the person at a party who asked a question they thought was innocuous. I blank because I can’t think of just ONE title. I want them to get out a piece of paper and a pen so I can give them not one, not five, but fifty or a hundred titles they should immediately read. I want to whip out my spreadsheet of books (and yes, I’ve done this at a party before on my phone. I’m clearly THE PERSON YOU WANT at your party. With my easily accessible spreadsheet of books.)

In other words? The publishing industry has its issues, of course, but at the end of the day, what this post reminds me is that I’m spoiled for choice. I’d like to see many more diverse books being published, but right now?

It’s a good time to be a reader.

Do you have any issues with recommending books to people?