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Essays

In Defense of Recommending Books You Haven’t Read

I rarely feel any more qualified to recommend a book after I’ve read it than before.

I worked as a bookseller for more than decade, and I’ve been book blogging for longer than that. In that time, I’ve recommended countless books, and I would guess that the majority of them were books I have not read. I’m not alone, either. If you go into a bookstore and ask for a recommendation, especially on a specific topic/in a certain genre, there’s a good chance that pitch is coming from someone who’s never read it.

If you haven’t been a bookseller or librarian, that may came as a surprise. If you have, though, you quickly learn that most of your job is not discussing literature with customers who have the exact same taste in books as you. Besides, many serious readers — the kind who gravitate towards a bookstore job — have a certain niche. Maybe they read mostly mystery or sci-fi or Russian classics or local poetry collections. They’d be happy to recommend you books in their preferred category, but not every customer will want that.

No, much more likely was getting a customer who asked me for a Scandinavian mystery author recommendation when I can’t keep track of the clues given in the first chapter of any given mystery. If I was working with someone who had that expertise, I’d happily match the two up, but that is more rare than you’d think. More likely, I’d have to handle it myself.

At that point, you have a few different options. The 100% honest approach: “Lots of customers who read X author also buy Y author, so you should try that! Here’s what it’s about: [summarizes back cover].” There’s the liar, liar approach: “Oh yes, I know that author! I just read Y series and loved it! [summarizes back cover, with additions cribbed from other customer’s previous comments and possibly from online reviews]” Then there’s the sweet spot in the middle, where I liked to live. I’d discuss the book without actually stating either way whether I’ve read it, and I’d admit it if they asked directly.

Why not always go with the 100% honesty route? Well, because it doesn’t convince people. When someone wants a recommendation, they’re looking for the personal touch. So, that dishonest option will sell more books. I’m not naming names, but I had a coworker who did this all the time, and customers love him. People travel to town just to get his recommendations, and they’re satisfied. He’s never had a complaint!

Also, here’s the thing: I am but one opinion. No matter how many times I read a book (zero or more), I only have my own particular perspective to bring — and besides, I forget most of what I read very quickly after finishing it. When I’m recommending a book I haven’t read, though, I draw on a lot more than that: I browse through a dozen reader reviewers looking for patterns. I skim 1-star reviews for red flags. I collate opinions and summarize. Those recommendations are more useful, I think, than just my own feelings.

I often see people on bookish social media being horrified when they find out a bookish account has recommended a book without reading it, and I just don’t agree. To me, there are some distinctions to make:

Is the recommender talking about this book in isolation (e.g. as their whole TikTok video?) Are they enthusiastic and referencing their personal reading experience? Do they seem to really be selling you on this particular book? If so, that’s not great if they haven’t actually read it.

Is this book on a themed list? (For example, “10 Great SFF Series with Unicorns”.) Is it talked about in general terms, mostly describing facts about the plot and the genre? Have they not actually stated they’ve read it? If so, you’re making an assumption where you likely shouldn’t. Plenty of bookish social media accounts make lists on a theme without reading each one. Otherwise, every book list post or TikTok would be a months-long endeavor. It’s just not sustainable.

What I often found as a bookseller, and I still see in the comments of bookish social media, is this idea that there are Good Books and Bad Books. If you’ve read a book, you can confidently sort it into one or the other, and the next reader would agree. Customers or followers often expect the book expert in front of them to be their line of defense against bad books. But book opinions are hugely varied.

For one thing, the author thought that book was good. If they’re traditionally published, their agent thought it was good. The acquiring editor must have thought it was good. And I defy you to find a single traditionally published book that has no 5-star reviews, no reader that loved it. It’s about matching readers to the right books. I can tell you that if you like X plot element or Y writing style, you’ll likely enjoy this book — or that if you hated Z title, you probably won’t like this one, either. But no one can definitively tell you whether you’ll like a book, whether they’ve read it or not.

Of course, you’re free to only want recommendations from people who have read the book, but the solution to that it to ask directly. Until then, you can keep on raging against it if you’d like, but the bookish world is going to keep recommending books they haven’t read.

And, of course, if you want to make your own bookish social media where you only recommend books you’ve read, you’re welcome to do that! I suggest starting with reading:

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