The problem with book recommendations

couple smiling behind books

I always hate recommending things to people. What if the person hates the thing? Will they judge me? Will they no longer rate my opinion? Even worse, what if they ignore my recommendation? I spent three seasons extolling friends about the virtues of Game of Thrones only for them to say things like they hated trolls. Suddenly when the media decided GoT was popular, the same friends were asking if I had watched it. Sigh.

I’m also not very keen on receiving recommendations as I feel pressured to like the thing.  For years, I had people telling that I ‘must’ watch The Wire as it was the best series ever shown on TV. Knowing what type of programmes I like (dystopian, fantastical – think Lost, Heroes), I seriously doubted that I would enjoy it but after the six thousandth person told me I just ‘must’ watch it, I did. I hated it. I know I must be the only person in the word who hated The Wire but I did. Actually, I didn’t completely hate it; season 4 set in the school was good but the rest? Meh.

Book Clubs

So what of all this talk about recommendations? Well, despite my hatred of being told what I should try, I do actually like to hear what others are reading, watching and doing. Just indirectly. Which is why I have wanted to join a book club for years. I haven’t been able to find one in my area that I could commit to time-wise. I have been asked why I want to join one and my main answer is that I don’t want to rest of my literary laurels. I want to know about what others are reading, genres I may have never considered etc.

Up pops a recent Guardian article about the increase of digital book clubs. With digital book clubs, the article states, you no longer restricted by time management, “all you need to do is log in, purchase your book and start commenting“. The problem with this is I end up being one of those lurkers you get on any social media. I read everyone’s comments and fail to leave my own. It never really feels like a community to me but free recommendations, right?

Some recommendations are better than others apparently

Like most media interest in anything, this article’s focus seems to be linked to celebrity endorsement annoyingly. A few of the of the clubs are hosted or promoted by celebrities; Emma Watson, Florence Welch and Zoella.

It is difficult to read through the article without noticing the slight bias towards the more acceptable celebrity of Emma Watson when compared to the write-up of Zoella’s club. It’s “annoyingly perfect” for Emma to leave books around underground stations with notes written inside imploring the finder to leave it in the station again when finished. Her book choices are described as “funny, inspiring, thought-provoking and empowering” reads. By contrast, Zoella’s choices apparently “tend towards “cute, glittery” fiction about beautiful white girls who fall for manic pixie dream boys“. Me-ow!

With recommendations comes huge responsibility

It seems that I am not the only one to worry about the responsibility that comes with book recommendations. A previous Guardian article written by Amelia Tait about Zoella’s book club suggests that not only is she responsible for getting young adults to read, she is also responsible for the types of book they read. She has a duty to get it right.

I wonder why Zoella has the level of responsibility heaped upon her whereas Watson and others don’t. Maybe it is because her fans, the people who listen to her, are of the younger variety. The article does seem to suggest this, “…Zoella has a responsibility to expose her young fandom to more. Put together, these books teach young girls to care predominantly about boys – not education, not society, not history.” This may or may not be true—I have noticed books on her books that do deal with more complex issues than just boys. However, surely having someone they look up to who is encouraging them to read is a positive enough?

Tait doesn’t think so when it comes to Zoella, stating that “No one can deny that Zoella influencing teens to read is a good thing. But, unlike when you or I pass on a book to a friend, she has a greater responsibility to consider the consequences.” Woah!

As a former teacher it would seem I have been afforded the same level of responsibility, I often get asked to recommend books for children who are reluctant readers, often boys. I will recommend books that I think the children will enjoy or will get them into the habit of reading for pleasure. I have suggested graphic novels and even picture books for preteen boys, which has resulted in parents being disappointed.

They thought I would recommend literary classics, ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ or that sort of thing as graphic novels are not seen as not literary enough. I am trying to recommend books that will foster enjoyment and pleasure for reading but the parents expect me to recommend books that educate and inform. Surely, getting the kids to read is the point, no matter what it is they are reading?

Sometimes it might be a good thing to read, or at least start, books you don’t like; it teaches you more about what you do like and what type of reader you are. This is particularly important for the young adults Zoella is recommending books to. They may have yet to develop an understanding about what they like and don’t like about literature and reading recommendations can help them begin to.

Where I find my recommendations

So it would seem book recommendations aren’t as innocent as they seem and with recommendations comes a level of responsibility, therefore maybe it is best to gain our book recommendations for algorithms rather than people. Digital may be the way forward.

Some of the places I have found books have been:

  • By using book recommendation sites such as whatshouldireadnext.com – here you just put in a book you have enjoyed before and it’ll create a list of books similar to this. I’ll then add up doing my own research on that
  • Goodreads – As I collate all the books I have read on my Goodreads profile, the recommendations provided there are often on point and
  • Newsletters I subscribe to – I culled the amount of newsletters I subscribed a while ago and I am glad I did. Now I get weekly delights straight to my inbox rather than multiple emails that I had painstakingly go through and trash. Two of the newsletters I am most likely to gain recommendations from are Austin Kleon‘s and Brainpickings. They often describe the books in such a way, I’m researching them before I have even finished reading the reviews.
  • Amazon – Just like Goodreads, my recommendations here I based on books I have already read because this is where I buy most of my books (sorry local bookshops!).

I have decided I don’t really want to join a book club, I just want to have a never-ending list of books I haven’t read for me to go out and buy or borrow. I am happy to share what I read here on my blog in monthly posts and maybe I’ll get readers confident enough to pass on some recommendations.

Do you recommend books to others? If so, which methods do you use?