On recommending books

    We do it enthusiastically, breathlessly, when we’re young, with no worries about whether or not the friend to whom we recommend a book will find anything at all meaningful in it. Have you read this? You must read it. I don’t recommend books very often any more, and I try to discipline myself in conversation: Never ask someone if he has read something or not. It makes you look pretentious and many people interpret the question as a challenge, or a taunt.
    As you grow older learning contributes to isolation, which you feel all the more keenly if you’re inclined to look back nostalgically at early adulthood. Young minds happily take direction from anyone, as if any imprint from the outside world is a step in the right direction, like kneading is an improvement to dough no matter shape it must ultimately take. When I was young, when all too many books simply baffled me, I admired anyone who was passionate about a book. That was all the recommendation necessary. I still have a collection of books I keep only because close friends were insistent that they would change my life.
    Now, much older, that seems a very inefficient way of getting what one needs from reading. But it’s sad every so often when a book moves you in the way books moved you as a youth. The instinct to recommend them is powerful, but checked by the sad reality that most people are too busy, too deep into their own idiosyncratic habits of reading, to put down what they must read in favor of a superfluous book. I was just reading…well, it doesn’t matter… but as soon as the vestigial thought fluttered up (“You must read this…”) came the more pragmatic realization: It appeals to me for reasons so private and particular to what has happened in the past few weeks and years that my enthusiasm can’t be trusted as an endorsement.
    Book reviews sometimes tell us that we ought to read a particular book. But they are too much bound up with the commerce of books to be entirely trusted. A book gets reviewed when it’s new, when there’s some chance that you might see it on the shelves of a bookstore (bookstore: noun: A place of business where books are the main item for sale, also called bookshop), or in the hands of someone on the Metro, or hear about it on radio or television. The premise of every book review, however, is that the book is new and therefore necessarily under consideration. A very different thing from the passionate recommendation of book we have just discovered.
    One imagines a post-professional paradise, where everyone reads again entirely for pleasure and disinterested learning. And recommendations are happily received and given, with no worry that one might be violating some nicety of etiquette. A community of learning rather than a hermitage.

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Filed under Culture, Feuilleton, Uncategorized

One response to “On recommending books

  1. Pingback: On recommending books | Philip Kennicott | Books Palace

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