Monday, May 25, 2015

The Art of Recommending Books

One of my favorite things about working in bookstores was being able to recommend books to people who didn't quite know what they were looking for. They had an idea of a book, they knew what they had liked, but they didn't have anything particular in mind. It was an opportunity to hand-sell books that I loved -- under the radar, backlist, or a forgotten classic -- in any case, a departure off the NYT Bestseller list for those who didn't want the same trendy book that everyone else was reading.

Of course, you have to be careful. Not everyone is going to appreciate the necrophiliac protagonist of an early Cormac McCarthy novel. If you were to even start telling someone about the plot of Child of God, they might start edging away down the self-help aisle and wondering if they should alert the authorities. I've had someone tell me that they tried to read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and wanted to throw it across the room, which makes me wish I had a copy to hurl back at their head, but... then I have to admit that it's really NOT for everyone's taste and it doesn't make them a bad person (necessarily).

So I try to think of things that readers would like based on what snippets of interest they've told me about, when and where they're planning to read it, and my gauge of their attention span. I know from my own idiosyncratic moods that some books have to wait for the right moment. I read Moby Dick the first time one summer while in grad school out of some kind of self-imposed, English major compulsion, liking some parts and finding much of it completely tiresome. The second time around, when I had a little more context and read it because I was interested in Melville and that whole era of writers, I LOVED it. I'm enamored with it. I'd happily read it a third time, and all the difference is when I was finally ready for it.

And some things are never going to click. One of the first serious recommendations I ever received from an adult who saw me as a budding writer was The Great Gatsby, which is totally understandable. It is a virtually undisputed American classic. You want to get some starry-eyed kid off on the right track in American literature, you go for Gatsby. So I dutifully read it as an eighth-grader, and of course, I didn't like it. What could a little Appalachian bumpkin possibly understand about all these whiny, affected rich people, drinking gin and dressing up in tuxedos for no apparent reason? Which is why I re-read it not too long ago -- because for crying out loud, it's F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yeah, I still hate it. I hate all those characters, especially the narrator, and even if you put Leo DiCaprio in the movie version, I still hate it. Is hate too strong a word? It's not to my taste.

And so fellow-readers, with that in mind, here are some entirely random recommendations for your summer reading. You might like them. You might want to employ them as a projectile. Who knows?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. My favorite of her three novels so far (and I've liked them all), it is an epic, touching, adventurous, heartbreaking, thoroughly engrossing novel about love, friendship, and art. Tartt is intellectually imposing while still being approachable and funny. If you want to throw this book, there's no hope for you, despite everything I just said.

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. For those of a naturalist's bent, a gorgeous book about plants and critters the author observes over a year in a wooded spot about the size of a mandala.  Also Scott Weidensaul's Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians. I love his writing and, growing up in these mountains myself, I learned a lot about the special geography of the place.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Here's something that almost never happens -- I'm recommending a novel that absolutely everyone else seems to be reading -- a bestseller, a mystery, someone probably already has the movie rights. Clever and well-written page-turner, this is Ur-summer reading material. I read it because my mother made me read it, and I ALWAYS listen to her. Yes.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills. A really smart, engaging, concise, power-house of a book that elucidates what makes this short speech so revolutionary in American history. My husband made me read it, and I ALWAYS listen to him, too.

Incarnadine: Poems by Mary Szybist. I don't read nearly enough poetry these days, but this is one contemporary collection I did catch. Beautiful and mysterious encounters between the everyday and the otherworldly -- reimaginings and recastings of the Annunciation. Also Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. She's one of my favorite poets, and there's a new book by Colm Toibin on Elizabeth Bishop that I have on my own list.

A few others that I've written about in more detail already: Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek; A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book; Hild by Nicola Griffith, anything by Michael Chabon.