I Can’t Recommend You Anything

I am bemused every time a stranger asks me to recommend them something to read. And that might sound like a severely infrequent occurrence, and it probably is for most people, but anyone with an online following has probably been asked this question once or twice. Multiply that number for anyone who reviews books. And add a few more to it when you get your own published.

It’s normal, natural.

David Bowie compiled a list of his favourite books and I immediately saved the link for monthly reference. I want to know which books David Foster Wallace loved. I want to know what Richard Ayoade and David Mitchell read before bed. I want to know because these are people I admire, people who I think would make smart and interesting choices. People I respect.

Conversely, sometimes I see book recommendations from people I follow on Twitter and I add it to my ignore pile. We’re not the same. If they loved it, it probably isn’t for me. It’s kind of an asshole thing to say but there are too many good books and not enough good days, so any process to whittle the choice down, however arbitrary, feels excusable.

I get it, though. I get why people who watch my videos might be interested in my recommendations. Maybe they relate to me. Maybe they, for whatever misguided reason, find me interesting. Maybe they have simply enjoyed my past recommendations – I do have great taste. But, by the same token, I’d never ask Richard Ayoade or David Mitchell to recommend a book to me, personally, because they have no idea who I am.

If someone asks me to recommend them a book, and they’re just an online handle with a tiny photo, then I can’t. I can’t adequately recommend them a book. I know nothing about them. When we recommend books to friends or family, we tailor those recommendations to the individual. If I read a book and I adore it, I won’t then recommend it to everyone I know. I’ll recommend it to specific people. Those who will get the most out of it. Interesting historical fiction? That’s for Jim. A digestible, philosophical perspective on life? That’s Myles. A funny picture book? Where’s Arun at? I can’t recommend you a book if I do not know you, I can simply regurgitate my own selfish preferences. My own, biased proclivity towards bitter, existential rambling from metaphysically tortured white men. And no one needs a signal boost on that shit.

So, I can tell you what I love. I do tell you what I love. I have. There are book videos on my channel talking about my favourite reads. There’s no secret information I’m keeping back. No hidden gems. But I can’t tell you what to read if I don’t know you. I think reading is a personal experience; every novel means something different to each person who reads it. Maybe you’re twelve. Maybe your issues are huge. Maybe you’re struggling with an abusive home life. Maybe you’re not, maybe you just like ponies and pokemon. Maybe you’re fifty and you love knitting or curling and still go clubbing on the weekends, which is perfectly fine, but you feel kind of down about the stigma attached to it and the looks you get. Maybe you’re thirty, you’re a passionate stockbroker with a baby on the way. Maybe you’re all or none of these people. I can’t just throw Knut Hamsun’s Hunger at you and hope for the best.


2 thoughts on “I Can’t Recommend You Anything

  1. I, like you, enjoy seeing the reading lists of famous people, getting to know what they read/read (present and past), or maybe just getting an idea for a new book to read.

    But I also feel like to recommend a book to someone, you really have to know the person. If I recommend books, I go exactly by what I know the person enjoys reading, not necessarily by my own personal favorites.

    Of course, if I have a favorite book, I will recommend it to people, but I won’t recommend The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (just because I adore them) to someone who enjoys fiction and mysteries and has no interest in the daily happenings of other people.

    I think it’s nice if you do a tour of your bookshelf (like you did on youtube) and show the books you have, then I usually take some notes and look up if I would enjoy some of them that sounded interesting to me. But I think that’s as far as anyone can go, recommending books to literal strangers.


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