You’re wrong about asking for book recommendations on the internet
As a person who has worked in public libraries for almost 30 years, I want to share a secret with you. Librarians have many secrets, but this is the kind of secret that helps others when it’s revealed. In fact, we should probably remove it from the Library Secrets list (Dewey #020 Library and Information Sciences) and put it back under Info for the Public Good (Dewey #613 Promotion of health).
Here’s the juice: you’re wrong about asking about books.
More specifically, you are asking for books wrong on the internet. People who visit real libraries tend to have a different vibe, so we can easily target them. The inquiry is an opportunity to start a conversation about books that most librarians are quite passionate about. The problem I want to address, like so many other ills in the modern world, is an online invention. It looks like this:
“What is a good book to read?”
My goodness, what a terrible question. This is textbook self-harm. It is masochism masquerading as a question. You are almost certain to get nothing but wrong answers.
Sure, “wrong answers” are right answers for the right people. But given the lack of information you’ve provided, chances are that any random book posted on the internet by a random person will leave you wanting. And let’s be honest: This question is not about finding a book. A book can be found anywhere. You probably have one in the trunk of your car that’s warped from the weather and food smashing. You don’t just want a book. You want a book that you like.
Well, that’s you: “Well, I asked for a GOOD book.” Again, this is useless information in itself. Do you think these people on the internet know you well enough to know what you’re good at? They know from experience that they don’t. Remember the time you had a cold and condescended to share that information on Facebook? Remember how the reactions ranged from a Scandinavian ice bath to crystals filling your nose? Remember how you didn’t even ask for cures? You don’t know these people. And you know they don’t care because they’ll just jump in and shoot titles at you, without a single qualifying question. It’s like a blind date and all the guy (of course it’s a guy) does is talk about himself.
No baby what you need is someone who cares, who listens, who wants to know what makes you tick. You want someone who asks questions, who wants to know how you’re feeling, what you like. Someone who wants to do the dance in your head. They want a library situation. Unfortunately, you’re on the internet taking a poll of toadies and narcissists who have a little free time.
My recommendation: Take the time to narrow down the question. Statistically, the recommendations improve by at least 50 percent if you qualify your request with “Fiction, please” or “No fiction”. If you just say that – “literature, please” – boom: no biographies, no self-help books, no history of anything. Only stories that come from the minds and hearts of the authors and the people who read them. Obviously you still have a ridiculous amount of ground to cover, but at least you’ve narrowed it down to half the planet. US publishers produce about 800-1,000 new books per day. You want to pull the weeds before things get hectic.
The other quickie qualifier that seems to be the most helpful is genre, which narrows the stack. However, genres do go through stages of quality and sensitivity, so I find that giving this standard a period of time helps a lot. 1970s horror is very different from 2000s horror. What was considered literary fiction in the 1960s is very different from what’s on the lists today. So do yourself a favor and throw in a decade or “post 1950” somewhere. The average American reads one book a month, so there’s a good chance this advice will fall on deaf ears. But keep in mind that the world rarely changes all at once. It is instead being pushed into the future by niches of change all around us: this neighborhood, this school of thought, this company’s product. As long as I can get my social media feeds together, I can live with that. Happy hunting.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the non-profit Streetlight Guild.
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