Essays

So You Hated that Book Your Friend Recommended to You

Hating a book a friend recommended can put you in a bit of a quandary. Just how sticky a wicket is it? First, it depends on whether that recommendation was for you or from them. Which is to say, did this person come across something they think you’ll love, or are they sharing something with you that they adore?

If the recommendation is of the “for you” variety and it’s off the mark, lucky you. Here’s an opportunity to explain more about your tastes to your friend. Maybe the book was glacially paced and you like your books to be a little zippier. Or maybe you don’t like to read on-page sex scenes and the book was explicit. That’s helpful information for your friend to know, and they’ll likely be glad to try again, taking these new findings into consideration.

But when the recommendation is coming from the heart? That warrants a careful step. For many of us, sharing book recommendations is like sharing a piece of our soul. Books can express experiences and feelings we’ve never been able to capture in words ourselves. They create worlds we want to visit and invite our loved ones into. So we share these books, hoping that the people in our lives can understand us better through the books we read. When someone recommends a book to me, I try to honor the implications of that recommendation. Even still, sometimes I hate the book. What then?

Rule Number One: Don’t Offer Up Unsolicited Opinions

I genuinely think letting people like what they like is a good credo to live by in many circumstances. By that token, I don’t want to ruin things for my friends. Life is hard enough, and we all need our silly little pleasures. So if I hate a book someone recommended to me, odds are they will never find out! I may be baffled at our differences in taste, but life is a rich tapestry. I don’t need to be pulling at the threads that don’t appeal to me.

Not saying anything is always an option. In the case of hating things your friends like, it’s generally the best path, in fact. The real trouble comes with the dreaded question, “So did you ever read that book I gave you?”

What If They Follow Up on Their Recommendation?

If you’ve ever recommended a book to someone and then asked if they’ve read it yet, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re a jerk. It’s okay; do better next time. Give book recommendations freely. But trust that if the recommendation really lands, your friend will let you know! If they’ve forgotten about it, that’s okay, too. Forgetting is the natural way of things in an overstimulating world. If your book comes up again in conversation, recommend it again if you wish. Personally, I would let it go. But asking about a prior recommendation is only inviting awkwardness into your life.

So if the tables are turned, and you’re asked about a recommendation that you read and hated, I’m sorry your friend put you in a tough spot. At this point, you have to really consider the kind of relationship you have with this person and go forth accordingly.

For the Friends who Give Consistently Bad Recommendations

I have a friend like this. Sometimes I wonder if they really know me at all, but I also know that when they give me a recommendation of something they love, they aren’t holding onto that book for dear life. Suggested reads come fast and furious from this person, occasionally on point and other times wildly out of whack. Luckily, a simple “yeah, that wasn’t for me” suffices. No hard feelings and our friendship continues apace. You’re lucky if this is also your case.

For the Friends Who Hold Books Extremely Dear

There is a danger in loving things too much. There are people who might equate an “I don’t like this book” with “I don’t like you.” Honestly, people in that boat have some issues to work through that are above my pay grade, but I sympathize with them. I too have big feelings and can get defensive. If you hated a book someone like this recommended to you, I suggest finding something — anything — about that book that you can honestly say you liked. For example, “What a cool premise.” The unspoken part: too bad they wasted it with their garbage writing.

Another tack to take is to ask a question that gets them talking about it. For example, “Did you think X was a metaphor for Y?” The unspoken part: the ham-handed symbolism in this book is visible from outer space. It’s possible that hearing what your friend loves about the book will alter your own feelings. Or allowing them to gush will make it a positive enough interaction for you both that you won’t have to say much.

Lying is Always an Option

Look, I’m not above it. A simple “Oh yeah, I forgot about that book, I will have to bump it up on my list” is not the worst thing to say. There is always danger in lying, because forgetting about a recommendation could also signal to your friend that you don’t take them as seriously as they want to be taken. It’s a very personal decision when it comes to how much responsibility to take for your friends’ feelings. I will admit to being overly protective of other’s feelings all too often. Which leads me to my next point.

It’s Okay to Let Friends Be Upset

If you’re someone who protects other’s feelings too much, this is a great time to practice upsetting someone in a low stakes way. Think of all the petty grievances you suffer day in and day out. You get over them, right?

You do not have to be detailed about the degree to which you disliked a book. But suppose you express your dislike for a book in a reasonably gentle way — again, “it wasn’t for me” is a great phrase — and that upsets your friend. You’ve done nothing wrong. They were wrong to follow up on the recommendation, and being hurt about something like personal opinions about books is not reasonable. Let them be upset! They’ll get over it if they’re a person worth being around. And hopefully they will learn that valuable lesson about trusting the recommendee to follow up.

But What if They Really Need to Know Why This Book is Bad?

There are times a book will have some content you find genuinely offensive. And maybe your friend missed it because they lack the perspective you have. If you think it’s a teachable moment, say your piece. I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it work. If they get defensive, see my above point: let them be upset. Hopefully they’ll come around.

Keeping the Friendship Boat Afloat

Isn’t it funny that something as seemingly benign as book recommendations dredges up all these complicated friendship dynamics? But the best friendships are ones that trade in honesty and vulnerability in addition to shared interests. The glorious feeling of intensely connecting with a friend’s beloved book is worth navigating these choppy waters. So I wish you smooth sailing on the bookish friend-ship.

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