The “Swiss Army” Recommendation

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

A few years ago, I started writing an annual Top 10 list of books for friends and family. It appeared around Christmas for holiday shopping and winter break reading. Its goal was simple: to distill my ranging, desultory reading into a few reliable and relatable recommendations. As things happened, this list ended up, by forward and by link, being distributed to a slightly wider circle than was originally intended. This development was much to the good and quite gratifying, but one niggling question began to appear from people beyond my direct acquaintance: “which one of these would I like?”

If you happened to read an earlier post, you know that I think personality, location, temperament, and mood influence our reading tastes and so trying to offer a recommendation with no knowledge of the recommendee presented a frustrating endeavor. It was then that I came up with the idea of the “Swiss Army Recommendation”–books that I think most people will like pretty well.

And while it has definitely worked, you can see the disclaimers already, starting with the above qualifiers  “most” and “pretty well.” But these equivocations aren’t the end of it, the Swiss Army Recommendation also assumes a few basic things about someone asking me for reading guidance, including a desire to read literary fiction (ie no Grisham or Meyer or Patterson or Sparks and so forth), a willingness for books from all over the world and from many different social and political perspectives, and at least some tolerance for difficulty.Those general, attitude-related assumptions made, I’ve also learned that there are a few other shared features of an all-purpose literary recommendation.

1. Plot and character matter. As much as I might like Mrs. Dalloway and think it is a signal work of English literature, I realize that a good portion of the reading public find its style daunting. So fairly readable plots and carefully realized characters matter.

2. Timeliness is close to godliness. People already know about Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and so on. They’re out there; I think what people are really asking is “what would I like that maybe I don’t know about?” Somehow the more established and canonical a novel is, no matter how much we think someone might like it, the less likely they are to be excited about reading it.

3. Endings make all the difference. Readers will forgive a great deal if the ending resonates, rends the heart, lifts the spirits, brings a tear, or otherwise elicits a powerful reaction.

With these manifold considerations in mind, I’ve carried around a mental list of 10 books to recommend to strangers and  humbly present them here.

In no particular order:

  1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon
  2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  3. The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  5. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  6. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  7. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  8. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  9. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
  10. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris


What books would you recommend (almost) unequivocally?