My cousin messaged me the other day to sheepishly ask an etiquette question. The mother of one of her daycare kids had given her a book to read, and she just couldn’t make herself get into it. She’d tried and failed and tried again. It’d been sitting on her shelf for almost a year, and now it was becoming a daily reproach. What should she do, she wondered. Fake that she read it and pretend to like it? Force herself to finish it and pretend she liked it?
Most of all, she wondered if she could just give it back and admit it wasn’t her thing, but she was afraid it would hurt the mother’s feelings.
My cousin wasn’t rude. The book lender was. What a terribly short-sighted thing she did when she shared a book she loved with her friend.
No, really. I mean it. And ‘tis the season to talk about giving books, so we may as well because the principles go for lending too.
Here’s the thing. Most of us love sharing the things we love with others. And you can feel free to recommend books all day long until you run out of breath or name every book you ever read or both. But that’s very different than putting an actual book in someone’s hand. VERY. DIFFERENT.
Unsolicited “you’ll like this” books shoved at me by well-meaning people are very anxiety-inducing.
Now . . . it’s possible this is just a function of my overall anxiety. But I suspect that lots of bookish friends feel this way no matter their anxiety baseline.
Here’s the problem: when you say, “You would try This Magnificent Book,” that’s a recommendation. When you hand me This Magnificent Book, that’s an obligation.
I will feel obligated to read it because it came from your personal library or the store. That is where Daycare Mama messed up. She meant to do right. I get it. But she done my cousin so, so wrong.
It’s because she acted with enthusiasm instead of discernment. I can’t fault anyone for trying to convince someone to read a book they love. The book in question was Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.
Um . . . I love that book. Love it. And I recommend it all the time. But putting it into someone’s hands? That’s a demand to read it. And as much as I love that book, I would never, ever have suggested it to my cousin. And that’s because I know what she likes, so I recommend books to her all the time that aren’t always my favorite but I know she’ll love them.
Look, don’t freak out. You can and should feel free to recommend anything you want. But you MUST be judicious about which books you actually GIVE. Do you see? You must see this. You must never, ever curse another soul with the burden of a book not chosen with them in mind.
So. How do you choose a book for someone? First, it’s a sixth sense and you kind of have to be born with it, like I am. I am super good at matching people to books they’ll love. My streak isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I know exactly who I would give Rothfuss to, but it ain’t my cousin. In addition to nearly perfect book-matching, I also have excellent parking spot karma, but that’s a story for another day.
If you have only regular mortal level book matching skills, but you’d still like to try, here are a few things to consider: personality.
Actually, that’s it. You just have to think about their personality. Sometimes people with determinedly sunny worldviews will resist heavy nonfiction that examines the ugly underbelly of humanity even if you found it compelling. Sometimes, hardened cynics will not enjoy the delicious confection of a YA romance even though it gave you a perfect escape.
You see where I’m going with this? Anyone who knows my cousin should have guessed that Rothfuss was never going to be her thing. Austen? Now you’re talking. So a Mary Robinette Kowal recommendation would have made more sense.
It’s natural to want people you love to love the books you love. For example, any person who wants to understand me as a person just needs to read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. If that person loves it, we are meant to be soul mates. If they only appreciate it, we are certainly meant to be friends. If they dislike it or don’t get it, there’s no hope for us at all.
Honestly, it comes down to this: as much as you may want to share the books you love, if you love the person you’re sharing them with, you have to think about if they’ll love it too. And that takes consideration, reflection, and a pretty good understanding of their personality.
Now that I’ve scared you all from trying, I offer this as a place to start: a list of books BUNCHES of people have loved which give them broad enough appeal to be safe bets for most people.
Give me some time with your friend. I’ll figure it out.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..