The Art of Not Recommending

I’ve read some really good books lately: John Grisham’s Calico Joe completely satisfied my baseball book jones. See You at Harry’s from Jo Knowles and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green are two of the finest YA books I’ve ever come across. My guilty pleasure is the Doc Ford series from Florida thriller writer Randy Wayne White. I was almost giddy when I read his Twelve Mile Limit over spring break and came across mentions of places I’d been to earlier that day! Do I recommend that you read any of these books? Not really.

I’m reluctant to recommend books to others, even when I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a particular title beyond its entertainment value or for having provided some version of enlightenment. If I recommend a book, it seems as if I’m saying, “I know your tastes well enough to think that you will be glad you spent several hours of your precious life with this book.” Although I have plenty of reader friends, I still hesitate to presume they will like a book as much as I did.

When it comes to students, I’m even more reluctant to make recommendations. I’m 35 years older than they are, with a different set of experiences—both in life and reading. How can I presume to know that a book that worked for me will also work for them?

My students read at least one book a month. We talk and blog about books almost non-stop. They know what I’m currently reading and how much I like it, and I have a pretty good sense of what’s going on in their reading lives too. I’m completely comfortable talking about how much I like a book, but I rarely get to the point where I say, “I think you will like this book too.”

I raved in class about John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but I never specifically recommended it to anyone. Several have read it in the past month, and they liked it too. One of them said in a recent blog post, “The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year.” In that case, our tastes overlapped. I’m glad. Maybe that means that I’m still capable of thinking like a kid on occasion, or maybe it means The Fault in Our Stars is so good that it’s almost impossible to not admire it.

Here’s an exception: Baseball books are important to me. Good ones are a special joy. John Grisham’s latest novel Calico Joe is one of those. I. Loved. That. Book. It almost made me cry. Almost. One of my students also likes baseball books, and he has read a couple of other John Grisham books this year. In that case, I felt like I could go out on a limb and say, “Based on what else you’ve reading, I think you might like Calico Joe.” He’s almost finished with it, and I’m eager to read and hear his thoughts on that book I admired so much.

Which brings to light another qualifier to my un-practice of non-recommending. If I know that a student has read and enjoyed a certain set of books, and if I know a title that seems like a natural extension of that set, I’ll say, “If you liked that one and that one, you might also like this one.” Is that a recommendation? I guess, but it’s one that I might make even if I haven’t read the book I’m suggesting.

Veronica Roth at Fremd High School’s Writers Week XVIII, February 29, 2012.

This happened on a large scale at the beginning of the school year when students were finishing the Hunger Games series and casting about for something similar. I was ready for that one: “If you liked The Hunger Games, you should take a look at Divergent by Veronica Roth.” I can’t count how many of my students have now read Divergent—helped along no doubt by Veronica’s visit to our school’s Writers Week XVIII last February. And the most popular book among my students this month, with no close second, is Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, a book I haven’t read yet.

I also frequently show students various “Best Of” lists and recommended reading lists. My colleague Russ Anderson curates an amazing List of Lists that I will be showing my students this week in preparation for their summer reading adventures. I also let them know about book recommendation web sites like Your Next Read, Goodreads, and Shelfari.

So where do my students get their recommendations? From each other! On their year-end reflections about our class, I’m gratified to see comments like these:
–“I have found many good books to read by scrolling through the Ning blogs.”
–“I think it is an awesome way for students to not only share their opinions of books or other topics, but to just find a new book to read they might not otherwise have read.”
–“The second half of the year, I found most of the books I read by reading monthly blog posts on the Ning.”
(Our web site is a Ning, a powerful social-networking platform where we upload blogs, course materials, discussions, etc.)

I like to talk about books and reading with students, colleagues, friends, family, and even total strangers. For me though, talking about books and recommending books are two different activities. Teachers who know just the right book for each student are magical. I wish I had their touch. But because I don’t—or at least don’t think I possess that alchemy—I rely on cultivating a culture of reading and books to help students find their own paths to titles that I hope will make an impact on them.

How do you approach recommending books to others?

Thanks for reading this and for your comments.

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6 Responses to The Art of Not Recommending

  1. amylovesya says:

    Other than Divergent, I do not recommend books to students unless asked. Even with Divergent, it was not an easy sell because I likes it, and apparently a 20 year divide makes me old. Why would they trust the taste of an old teacher? But after I read the first 100 pages aloud, I launched an all out frenzy. I understand the lack of wanting to trust my taste, but now I have students who ask me for recs and to borrow my books all the time. For me, when I am head over heels for a book, it is hard not to want everyone to read it. I am guilty of wanting others to love what I love so we can love it together, but I try not to go overboard or to recommend that which I know is particular to my taste. Very thought provoking post, Gary.

  2. Joy Kirr says:

    Just ran across you blog from a tweet. I, too, am a bibliophile, and enjoyed this first post I read. However, I’m curious about something… I don’t think you’re old enough, as I had a Gary Anderson teacher in HS, but would you have taught at HEHS in 1991?? Please let me know! Either way, keep blogging! :-) @JoyKirr

    • Hi, Joy. Thanks for visiting here and for your comment. No, I’m the “other” Gary Anderson, the one from Fremd, although I know the HEHS Gary too. There was a time when we were both English department chairs. Yes, our district had five English chairs, and two of them were named Gary Anderson. Although he is now retired, we still get each other’s messages from time to time, which we forward on to one another. He’s a good guy.

  3. Alyse says:

    I agree with Amy. It’s really hard for me to not share my excitement about a book and not want everyone else around me to read it and share in its brilliance, but I think you pose a valid point in this blog post.
    In the school library where I did my Practicum work, it was a totally different population of kids, where, in a lot of cases, their only access to books was the school’s small collection. Eliminating recommendations in that environment would hinder the readers advisory aspect of the job because a lot of times the students looked to us for that (“What did you like reading, Miss Alyse?”).
    There’s a difference, though, between assuming you know what a student would enjoy reading and creating a dialogue about what he or she likes about a book (or anything in life really) and from there being able to recommend something.

    Another readers advisory/read-alike online reference site is NoveList. It’s subscription-based, but most likely all the local libraries have it available for use. It’s really helpful because you can click on certain characteristics of a book and find matching ones (e.g. “series” “dystopian” “female protagonist”).

  4. Wondering if you’ve skimmed, heard of, or forgotten ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ by Pierre Bayard? Communicating your enthusiasm for reading what you like (and modeling communication about your ‘screen books’) is probably more important than getting anyone to read exactly what you read.

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