Reading Recommendations

A couple of days ago I received an email from a friend asking me if I would recommend novels that would help ease a friend of hers back into reading.  Now, I’m sorry if this is going to sound uncaring but I really hate requests like this.  Reading is such a personal experience and suggesting books for another reader is chancy enough even when you know them and their tastes very well.  However, I have never met this woman and I know nothing about her other than that she stopped reading when her husband died thirty years ago and that she has poor health herself.  How can I even begin to select novels that might tempt her back into the world of fiction on such little information?  Actually, if she hasn’t felt the need for fiction in her life for so long, does she really want to read now or is this our mutual friend telling her she ought to?

Anyway, whatever the truth of the situation is, I have turned my mind to this over the past couple of days and have one or two possibilities I might suggest.

I thought that Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge might prove a good way in.  I have no idea whether or not reading stamina is a problem for this woman, but if it is then the way in which this book is organised might be helpful.  If you haven’t read it (and if not, why not, it is superb) it is structured as a series of short stories which together build up a picture of the Olive Kitteridge of the title.  It’s perfectly possible to pick the book up, read a story, and then put it down again until the following day.  I suppose I could just recommend a short story collection but then I’m not much a reader of the genre myself and anyway if the idea is to ease her back into a full novel then this seems like a good half way stage.

Then I though I might offer one of Anne Tyler’s books.  Tyler is a stylish writer but the books are never that demanding in terms of the stamina they require and they frequently deal with the type of social and personal issues that, given our mutual friend, I would imagine this reader to be interested in.  I could go for almost anything in the author’s output but A Patchwork Planet is probably my favourite. I’ve always thought that the idea of Rent-a-Back was absolutely brilliant.  Why every town doesn’t have one is beyond me.  Maybe I should use my retirement to do something about it.  I’m sure there’d be a call for their services.

I’d also like to suggest Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees on the same grounds as the Tyler.  I think the social and political issues might be appropriate.  But, like Kingsolver’s central character, Taylor Green, this woman was left with a small child to bring up on her own.  Is it too close to home?  I simply don’t know because I don’t know her.

Am I alone in thinking that this is a nigh impossible task?  Has anyone out there ever been asked to do the same thing and if so what did you recommend?  And was it successful?  Any feedback would be gratefully received and any suggestions even more warmly welcomed.

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18 thoughts on “Reading Recommendations

  1. I get this request on a regular basis. Among my friends and colleagues I am probably the most voracious reader and most people know that I read a wide variety of stuff including a healthy dose of Young Adult fiction for work. I teach 7th grade English and history. It’s an easy request when a student asks me for recommendations if I have some idea what sorts of books that student enjoys and I a parent can describe a few titles their child likes then I can usually help them out.

    But as for adults, I always wonder why they can’t just go to the library and look on the shelves themselves. But, even then, I can let them know what I’ve read recently and enjoyed. Usually, they’ll end up getting whatever it was they really wanted in the first place….

    1. I never had any problems with my Year 6 class either. We knew each other and read together and I could often predict what they would like. As you say it’s the adults who are going to make up their own minds about a book and then blame you if they didn’t like it, who are the problem.

  2. I agree it’s a really difficult task–but your suggestions seem like really good ones to me, based on the limited information you have, especially A Patchwork Planet, which is one of my favourite Tyler novels as well. (Ladder of Years is my top favourite!)

    1. Coming from someone as well read as you, Rohan, the endorsement is very welcome. Ladder of Years isn’t one of Tyler’s that I know but one of my current reading projects is to fill in my Tyler gaps so I’ll move it to the top of the list.

  3. I’m asked this all the time, both at the public library and among friends and family. I try to determine the type of book to recommend by finding out what sort of stories the person likes. What does the person watch on tv or at the movie theatre? Then I pick something accessible in that genre, preferably not too long. If the person in question doesn’t read, watch movies or watch television, then the person probably doesn’t care for stories. In that case,I try to find some casually written non-fiction on a topic of interest.

    I like your recommendations, especially for a female reader. I recommended the Bean Trees to my sister-in-law who wanted to start reading again, and she really enjoyed it. For men, I’d go with Robert Ludlum as a general good-for-most-guys pick.

    1. That sounds like a good policy, Naomi, and I suppose that this is a problem librarians must face all the time. Unfortunately, as this woman is good 200 miles away I can’t adopt it in this instance. My real concern is that she doesn’t really want to read fiction anyway but is being told she should for her own good.

  4. Oh, this question is the worst. I always find myself stumped and uncomfortable, because people assume that someone who reads as much as I do must obviously be capable of recommending millions of books. It gets awkward. It seems like you’ve done a fairly good, balanced job of picking titles, though. My only recommendation is to “play it safe”. As terrible as it sounds and as much as I want to punch myself for saying it, when dealing with a reader whose tastes you don’t fully understand, it’s better to offer books that maybe aren’t your absolute favorite works of literature, but have a general appeal…

    1. I think that’s very sound advice, Biblibio. You really have to know someone very well before you can make even a tentative suggestion and even then you can get it wrong. I see it every month in my reading groups. Books I would have thought would really appeal to one reader don’t go down well at all,while someone else I thought might not like it thinks it’s wonderful. You just can’t win.

  5. I always find these vague recommendation requests difficult too. My approach is usually something like Naomi’s, but that does require some back and forth. And I often go with safe, generally popular choices, even if they aren’t my favorites.

    Another thought is that if there’s a movie or TV show she loves that’s based on a book, she could start with that. And then other books by the same author. Or if her library has one of Michael Dirda or Nancy Pearl’s books about books, she could browse through those.

    Also, audiobooks might be a more appealing way for her to enter into some stories, if that indeed is what she wants to do.

      1. Some people do not consider audio books as reading. You could just as well recommend going to the movies; after all, Mel Gibson made a movie of Hamlet that I’m sure Shakespeare would have considered just as good as the original play. There’s a current movie, Easy A, where a recurring theme is that students, rather than actually reading The Scarlett Letter, were more familiar with Demi Moore taking her clothes off in the movie by the same name.

        If asked for a recommendation to ease back into listening, perhaps; but the specific problem was reading.

        How about The Wind in the Willows … a classic, easy to read, multi-layered, and there’s always the Disney cartoon if it gets too confusing (this is one where the book is definitely better but the film is still a lot of fun).

  6. Since I tend to focus on transgressive literature, most of my friends now know not to ask me for recommendations. I think, however, that there are too many people who have not had an adequate exposure to the classics, and that is unfortunate. Why bother reading The Wide Sargasso Sea if you haven’t even read Jane Eyre?

    So I will ask about those classic novels that just everyone should have read … and if I get blank stares in return, I will make an apropos suggestion from the wealth of classic literature.

    Then again, if a true degenerate is looking for something to tweak their demented mind, I might suggest one of the books I recently read.

    1. I thought about the classics, Mike, but in the end came down on the side of books that were rather shorter. I think reading stamina is a real issue with people who are not practised readers and anything too long or weighty can be off-putting.

  7. I’ll only make recommendations if I have some idea of the person’s tastes. For someone who hasn’t read in a long while and just wants to be reminded of what’s pleasurable about reading, I would probably go for classic genre and suggest Agatha Christie (some people swear by Terry Pratchett, though I don’t myself read science fiction). Of course if your non-reader doesn’t fancy crime, then that’s not going to work. But I would probably head towards short, easy and pacy for someone who hasn’t felt like reading in a long time. I like Teresa’s audio book suggestion too. And I personally adore Anne Tyler. Oh and if it was difficult mourning that made her give up books, sometimes the kill or cure approach works with something like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (it was the only book a friend of mine could read when she lost her mother rather traumatically).

    It is a difficult one, though, and I would certainly make the friend go back and get some more information! 🙂

    1. I thought about genre fiction, especially give that it normally very plot driven but I’ve had to assume that this woman’s tastes are similar to our mutual friend who would never read eithe crime or fantasy.

      I think the audio idea is a really good one and I’m definitely going to suggest that she tries some Anne Tyler that way.

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