The art of recommendations

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‘What’s your favourite book?’ is a question that strikes fear into any book lover’s heart. The panic of a spur-of-the-moment decision always follows, and an awkward silence as hundreds of equally worthy options spin through your head. Even trying to create a shortlist of favourites is a near-impossible task. How could you possibly represent the range, depth, and complexity of all the incredible books out there with a ‘top five’ and inevitably miss out some important, and incredible works of writing? 

Part of this struggle, for me at least, comes from the profound impact reading has had on my life, with a range of works, spanning all genres and writing styles, defining important moments of self-realization and expression – from books that made me feel seen and represented, to ones that influenced my outlooks and philosophies on life. The range of books is endless, and the number that have significantly impacted me or left a lasting impression is equally extensive, so how could I possibly pick just one? 

The act of recommendation carries with it an implicit endorsement

However, I also love to recommend books to friends, family, and like-minded people (don’t worry – I wait to be asked and don’t spring these recommendations on people without warning), and though this may seem contradictory to my inability to choose a favourite, I don’t believe it is. Recommending a book is a process. Importantly, it is a process that is unique to each person you recommend a book for. This can take in everything from genre preferences, recent topics of discussion, or just something that you think will bring the intended pure, unadulterated joy. Sometimes this process can happen in an instant, and all the factors that make a good recommendation just align: recently an unsuspecting friend left a catch-up and drinks with a copy of Queer Prophets nestled safely in his bag (worth pointing out, he loved it). Other times, a recommendation can take a bit longer and be the accumulation of small things picked up over weeks of just chatting, or in the case of a longer list, need some serious thought. I’m still to send the list of my ‘Top Novels in Translation’ to a friend, which I’d promised since December (currently it ranges from László Krasznahorkai to Haruki Murakami). 

Recommendations carry weight behind them. You’re not just suggesting a book to read, but the act of recommendation carries with it an implicit endorsement that the book has value. By ‘value’ I don’t mean any pretentious snobbery of trying to gatekeep what a good book is; the idea of a ‘pure canon’ of literature makes no sense to me. Essentially, for me the value of a book is always an individual judgement, whether that be it was just a lot of fun, opened your eyes to something, or carries intellectual weight. We read for pleasure, to grow, to be challenged, and to think. What you recommend reflects on you, not only giving someone a glimpse into your reading habits and what you enjoy, but also into your outlook on life, the beliefs and convictions you hold, as well as saying a lot about you as a person. In recommending a book to someone you’re suggesting it is worth reading, that in some shape or form it will benefit whoever you’re directing it to. 

The individualized process of recommending a book for someone is quite a personal act, shaped by your relationships and knowledge of whoever you’re suggesting a book for. You know it’s getting serious in a friendship when they start suggesting books, and strangely some of the most lasting memories of people are the books they’ve recommended. Gilead from a friend so close they’re basically family; what we talk about when we talk about love from a good friend who in the current circumstances I haven’t seen in a while; Breakfast at Tiffany’s from one of the loveliest people I met at Durham; Waiting for the Last Bus sent during the first lockdown; or a well-loved copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns with pride of place in my second year sitting room.

There is always a slight risk involved when recommending a book

It’s also personal in the sense that, as in advising anything whether a book, a piece of music, or a cocktail, recommending a book is an intensely vulnerable experience. By suggesting a book, you implicitly admit that you enjoyed it or found value in it to the extent that you’re sharing it with others. This vulnerability opens space for whoever you’ve suggested the book to, not to like it. There is always a slight risk involved when recommending a book, regardless of how long or how well you’ve known the person or thought about what they might enjoy. At the end of the day, we’re all very different readers, finding value, pleasure, and growth in a dramatic variety of genres, writing styles, and themes. I would argue that this often leads to some of the best conversations, and you’ll probably end up knowing one another so much better because of it. 

When it comes to books, we don’t always have to agree or have the same tastes (if we did, it would be an extremely boring, artless world and my degree probably wouldn’t even exist). The diversity and range of what’s on offer is what makes recommending books and having them recommended to you exciting. It becomes a form of knowing someone else, how their brain works, what they find beautiful and important in the world.

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