Working in books, it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked for recommendations. Generally, I’m happy to oblige—I get to read amazing books every day, and I’m happy to share the wealth (as are my colleagues, as you’ll see from this blog). But it should be noted that there are certain social risks to sharing your tastes with others.
Rachel Donadio wrote a great piece in the New York Times last year about biblio-deal-breakers that captures just how high the stakes can be when it comes to sharing books. While we haven’t all experienced a breakup over Pushkin, several in-office conversations made it clear that when recommending books, it can be best to tread lightly.
Meghan Deans, marketing assistant and blogger extraordinaire, comments, “I used to give books as gifts as much as possible, and I always tried to give books that I have read and have loved. I thought to myself what a thoughtful gift-giver am I! Except there was this selfishness component, you know—I loved this thing, you had better love it too, and also validate how smart I am for liking it.”
After giving away copies of Fraud by David Rakoff, and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, she says she “had to cut it out because I got way too nervous after giving these books. I always wanted to hear back that people had seriously loved them and that these books spoke out their souls, but that was mostly not going to happen!” She’s recommended her latest favorite, The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, “up and down and crossways, but now I’m terrified to buy anyone a copy. The people who have read it on my recommendation have mostly liked it, but not necessarily committed to it the way I did. It’s intimidating to push books on friends and family! When you really respond to a book it’s on such a gut level—what if it turns out your friends don’t like your guts?”
Publicity assistant David Archer—for whom this post marks his debut on the Sun & Anchor—has had similar experiences with The Waves by Virginia Woolf. He told me that, “like a crazy person, I’ve always kind of absorbed certain books into my own persona. They aren’t just my favorites—they’re aspects of my very being! While this fact, in and of itself, is rather tragic, things always become far more gruesome when I recommend those books to others.” For him, this is illustrated in his pushing of The Waves upon his friends: “Never mind that it isn’t easy, or that my pitch for it sounds like stilted flap copy for an undergrad thesis, or that I had been asked to recommend light, summer fare! I don’t recommend it to my friends because I think they might like it, but because The Waves is it for me and I feel that once my prey has turned the last page, we will be forever linked ever so closely.”
Alas, his prey proved a little wilier than expected, and he “watched copies of The Waves gather dust on friends’ shelves, the spines betraying nary a crack. Once, I even barreled into a friend’s room and demanded to know why he hadn’t read it yet—did he have any idea how much he was hurting me?! Naturally, he just shrugged and explained that it was only a book and I shouldn’t take it so personally. Gag.” Now Archer sticks to recommending books that are “a little less charged,” which he says works because “I don’t expect it to be a transformative experience between us.”
Associate Director of Publicity, author, and book-recommender Sloane Crosley—who is actually quoted in the NYT piece cited above, unbeknownst to me before writing this—subscribes to this practice as well, noting, “I have certain books I like to keep piles of in my office because everyone likes them. Or, rather, no one has ever asked me what the Hell I was thinking after I recommended them. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Heat by Bill Buford (and Heartburn by Nora Ephron while we’re on the topic).”
Shedding some light on why the recommender/recommendee relationship can get a little fraught, she goes on to note that “it can be a little risky just because the recomendee has to live with a book in a way he or she doesn’t have to live with an album or a movie or even an art exhibit – you can’t just walk out. Go get lunch. Pretend it never happened. It takes time and about 40 pages of patience to get into most books–fiction especially. With so much to read sometimes recommending a more obscure and beloved book can feel less like you’re doing someone a favor and more like they’re doing you a favor.”
I think it’s safe to say that fellow publicist and book-recommender Jen Marshall agrees with this assessment—she told me she’s “ridiculously careful about books that I recommend to friends. Because I know how crazy mad I can get if a book recommended to me is less-than-advertised so to speak. I hate wasting time and money.” Sadly, many of these disappointing tomes are acquired with honorable intent: “Every so often I do what I consider ‘professional homework’: I go to the bookstore and buy books from other publishers that have received recent, impossibly wonderful (or at least interesting) reviews from various publications.
Armed with USA Today’s bullish review of a big, witchy summer novel, she sets off, eager for what sounds like a smart-yet-fun read but gets just the opposite in her opinion. “I’m furious that I actually paid for the thing! In hardcover! Without a discount! Grrrrr.” Some of her favorite recommendations come from Sarah Weinman at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and a recent example of a book recommendation gone right is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: “I’m so happy to have paid for that novel that I’d gladly send the author a separate thank-you check just to keep her in tea and cookies as she writes her next one.” When making her own recommendation, she tries to stick with “brilliantly written crime novels that are like (one assumes) crack. Can’t get enough and you fall through the pages like Alice down the rabbit hole. Or Pride and Prejudice, because that novel never, ever disappoints. Even on the 67th reading.”
Editor and yet another veteran book-recommender Zack Wagman’s biggest problem when it comes to bestowing literary advice is staying in the present: “Because I’m reading so many manuscripts so quickly, I’m often at a loss when people ask me what I’ve read. Either the books are completely forgettable, or they won’t be coming out for a year or two. It’s embarrassing since I really do love recommending good books.” He’s come up with the great solution of creating a “semi-regular ‘Reading Newsletter’” that he sends out to family and friends. The list is varied, “some thrillers, literary stuff, and book-club-friendly fiction”—and they are all currently available for purchase. He notes, “I’m not sure if people buy books from it, but at least when they ask me what I’ve read recently, I can say ‘Didn’t you get the newsletter?”
So, what about you? Any harrowing tales of book-giving gone wrong? Heartwarming tales of book-giving gone right? Leave a comment below to be entered to win one of our favorite Vintage/Anchor titles of all time—you’ll love it, I promise. For a bonus chance to win, re-tweet @VintageAnchor’s mention of this post. We’ll track down the winner next Friday, August 14.