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On Recommendations

Last week on Zoom, my dear friend John Wiswell (read his work! I recommend it!) asked me how I handle book recommendations, with the sheer amount of reading I do. With a data set that large, how do I approach the question? he wanted to know. And I’ve been thinking about how to articulate it ever since.

If you read here regularly, you know that I say at least a little bit about every book I finish. Every book. If I finish it, it gets mentioned in my book notes here twice a month. This started back in the early days of blogging–no seriously, we’re talking more than twenty years ago at this point–when I was trying to post every day, which was the style at the time. And some of what I’m thinking about on any given day is the thing I’m reading, so that was going into my daily blog post. I found it useful to be able to look back and say, here’s which book this was, here’s how I felt about that, but daily blogging was no longer a thing I wanted to do, so I consolidated it. Later I started doing periodic and then year-end posts that were just lists of short stories that I have enjoyed.

With short stories, while I sometimes find things to say about them on twitter other than “this is good,” the list just goes up as a list, rarely any commentary. And the thing is: they’re short stories. They are not a commitment. Click on them, read a few lines, find out if you’re interested! But also know they exist. Obscurity is the greatest enemy of short stories (poems too).

With novels…well, let’s take a recent example that was an eARC so it got reviewed here in advance of the bimonthly book post. Brotherless Night, by V. V. Ganeshananthan. I used all sorts of positive language–“vivid,” “humane,” “nuanced.” I said, “I loved this book so much.” Do I recommend it to you? Well, sure. That is: I said things about it that should help make it clear whether I recommend it to you. Because there are very valid reasons not to choose to read a book about the Sri Lankan Civil War–one of our family member’s family members on the other side of the family personally fled that conflict, for example, and if those people look at it and think, oh, I hope this is beautifully done, I hope it’s a great book, and also I cannot take any more of this, I had too much of it in real life? Valid.

And of course there are less extreme reasons why a book might not be for you! At least one of you regular readers, for example, basically never likes children’s books. Never. No picture books, no MG, no YA, she’s tried it, she keeps trying again at least once a year that I see, she does not like children’s books. I try to give enough information that major predictable categories like that will be clear–that she will not think, oh wow, humor and friendship and the lore of the Indian subcontinent, I definitely should pick up this Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality! And then be extremely disappointed for something that is not a flaw in either her or the book, just a mismatch.

So…this ends up leaving me feeling like I don’t want to do “best books of YEAR” posts right now. I could do them with category markings (“best MG,” “best poetry collection,” sure), but most of how I want to talk about books–most of how I want to recommend books–is with a lot of context. And one of the things that does is make the line between “best” and “not really quite there” pretty blurry. So what I try to do instead is to bring things up in context–when somebody says they like historical fiction, for example, I will mention Brotherless Night. (Bullets can’t stop me from mentioning Brotherless Night at this point.) I will talk about Andrea Barrett’s recent collection and how she’s done worldbuilding stuff in historical fiction that is almost analogous to a fantasy world but with actual history. I’ll talk about my surprise at enjoying The Marriage Portrait as much as I did but that in the end I wanted it to go more places than it went–and I’ll reply to what the other people are saying in that conversation, how they feel about historical speculative conceits in this context, how soon “history” starts in their tastes, all of it. I want recommendations to be a conversation, and there are very few contexts in which I don’t want to have that conversation. “Ooh, I’ve thought of a book you might like” is one of my favorite sentences. Even if I don’t, mostly, end up wanting to make a book list at the end of the year and draw a bright line through the murk. I like the murk, is the thing. Having thoughts instead of ratings is another of my favorite things.

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