Not many Facebook notifications spark joy for me anymore. Actually, most of social media seems to designed to bum, stress, or burn me out. But there is one glorious exception to this rule, and it starts with a simple question: “Read any good books lately?”
If I were a cartoon character, this would be the moment my heart starts beating through my chest with enough force to push the skin and skeleton three feet apart.
I’ve become “the book friend.”
I didn’t used to get many requests for book recommendations. For a long while, I just foisted these opinions onto strangers on the internet. But now, either because my friends are all in their late 20s or early 30s or because I’ve gotten better friends, I field this question regularly.
“Read any good books lately?”
Of course, I have. Two this week.
A Desire to Connect
There’s a great thrill in sharing things you love with people you love. Maybe it’s a book or maybe it’s a movie—or an event or a crocheted something that, conceivably, could be used as a hat. The desire to connect is profound. I can think of no other reason that I have watched The Fellowship of the Ring (extended edition) while on a Skype call with a friend in another state, each with the movie playing in sync on our respective TVs.
I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve alerted to the presence of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and the rest of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. To walk down those moody Barcelona streets alone was one thing; to share the trip with someone else makes every twist and turn deeper, ripe for examination.
But the joy in being the book friend—in being the one who others turn to when they need a pick-me-up or a wallow-with-me read—is more than that.
Always a Surprise
Some of the people to whom I’ve recommended books are friends I’ve known for years. We’d describe ourselves as close. But sometimes their reading preferences still surprise me.
For example, the friend I’d never pegged as one for romance wants a book, maybe something dark, with a relationship or at its core. Read The Bear and the Nightingale, I tell her.
Or the coworker who always seems so rooted in the practical here and now but who routinely asks for epic fantasy recommendations. Pick up Senlin Ascends, I instruct him.
There are the friends with more specific requirements: something dark, but without too much violence; sci-fi but not overly technical; “I like YA and I want an ‘adult’ book that reads like one.”
And there are the friends whose requests have only a baseline: “Give me something that reads like the last book you told me to read.”
I do my best to provide detailed lists, even when the genre they want is outside my usual comfort zone. And I enjoy it. I enjoy coming up with the summaries, catering them to the readers, pitching them on things that will interest them, or warning them about things that may turn them off.
A Puzzle That’s Personal
That’s where the joy in being the book friend derives from. I know things about my loved ones—their basic likes and dislikes, the movies they’ve seen in the theater more than once, their hobbies, their insecurities, their dogs’ middle names.
But sometimes they still surprise me with the books they ask for. Every so often, they throw out a request I never saw coming. And I have the pleasure of piecing together the puzzle that is them. I muse on what may attract them to a certain author or genre or trope. I learn about them, more intimately than any one conversation might reveal.
Books are personal. All of their power happens inside your head. So when I nail a rec for someone, I feel like I’ve grown just ever-so-infinitesimally closer to them.
Maybe they feel the same way too.
Maybe they wonder why I push books like Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series on them so frequently.
Maybe they understand my attraction to stories about kids who don’t feel quite one way or another.
Maybe they reach that understanding when they turn the final page.
Whether they know it or not, they’re learning more about me with each paragraph and each page, just as I got to know them more deeply the moment they reached out to ask. That’s the magic of being the book friend.