Here’s a recommendation:
Don’t saddle me with your favorite books
by Joe Queenan
Illustration by Richard Mia
Few things in life are more feared than the book that comes highly recommended. Or the gifted book. Or the gifted book that you strongly suspect might be a regifted book.
Sometimes a warning, sometimes a threat, a gifted or recommended book is an attempt to force you to participate in a pleasure you would prefer to avoid. It is a search for validation, affirmation, honor. It’s not enough that I like you. It’s not enough that I enjoy your company. It’s not enough that you’re the person I would want by my side if I got into a fistfight in a dark alley with 365 Oakland Raiders fans. You also want me to respect you. Or at least you want me to respect your taste in books. This is asking too much of another person. Far too much.
Here is the basic problem. I like you. You seem to know a lot about trout fishing. Your thoughts about the inverted yield curve are jaw-droppingly perspicacious. I enjoy hearing you talk about that time you hitched a ride with Bo Diddley outside Macon. But I’m not interested in your book recommendations. Not now, not ever. In fact, I wish you had never told me that you liked books with names like Knee-Deep in the Dead or Scourge of the Saracen Scimitar or Let Us Now Praise Famous Yokels. Until then, things seemed to be going along swimmingly.
Now you’ve got me worried.
Tourists are warned to never study maps while walking around New York. It makes them look like “marks.” Something similar happens when you foolishly take a gander at other people’s book collections. Once the cormorant has spotted you, you have turned into dinner. I have made the mistake of picking up a book at a friend’s house — merely to test its weight — only to be told: “Go ahead, take it. I’m probably not going to get to it for a while.”
Well, of course you’re not going to get to it for a while. It’s a 989-page biography of John Quincy Adams. And you will never have to read it because you just dumped your copy on me. You have vowed that you are not going to crack it open until I finish reading it, which you know is never going to happen because there will never be a time when I will say to myself: “Hold my calls; I’m going to finally hunker down with that John Quincy Adams biography.” Not even if I live to be 115. So you are off the hook for life.
The recommended book is a deceptively cunning Rorschach test. It is an attempt to confirm that the quarry shares the same values as the predator. Giving people books they don’t want to read is not just an invasion of privacy: It’s a smack in the face. It’s punitive. It’s cruel. It is a socially acceptable form of sadism, the modern cultural equivalent of medieval hot pitch. I’m upset with you because you didn’t offer me your spare ticket to Hamilton on Broadway. So here’s the 1,200-page biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the musical. Enjoy!
People love to give you the book that changed their life. The Little Prince. Dow 36,000. The Official Preppy Handbook. Cujo. Frankly, unless the book explains how to cure lower back pain, I’m not interested. I am not interested in the book about octogenarian decathlon participants or the one about how the invention of tea cozies changed the world, and I am definitely not interested in the book explaining what really happened to that doomed Mars rover. I have my own reading agenda, and it does not resemble yours.
People are most likely to recommend books when the victim’s immune system is at its weakest. Hearing that you are laid up in bed with a torn meniscus or typhus, they pounce like uncharacteristically empathetic hyenas, armed with exotic chocolates, bouquets of gorgeous flowers, and potboilers by Dan Brown. They are well-meaning but annoying, not unlike Marie Antoinette, herself a reader of light novels. When confined for weeks to my bed of pain, my philosophy regarding get-well gifts is: Leave the cannoli, take the Kate Atkinson.
The chronic recommender of books clings to an unyielding and implacable personal philosophy. There is something missing in your life. It can be fixed by reading this book. Please let me improve you. But most people don’t want to be improved. Not if it involves reading a book about the deep state. With only a few exceptions — the Bible, the Koran — nothing important in life can be fixed by reading a book. This is particularly true of books written by or about politicians, or morally regenerated white-collar criminals, or plucky defensemen for the Red Wings. It should not be necessary to keep reminding people of this.
I enthusiastically accept book recommendations from only three people: my sister Eileen, my daughter, and my editor at The Rotarian.
People who recommend books display a willful obtuseness and insensitivity toward their victims. They want you to like a particular book even though all the data available to them suggests that you will hate it. This is like offering an Ohio State Buckeye a book about Michigan football. It’s like inviting a vegan to dinner and handing her a heaping bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Why would you do that? Were you paying any attention to who I am? Did you not notice that I was reading a book about Anna Karenina, not a book by Anna Kendrick?
Why is it that even on our deathbeds we are still thinking about the precious time we squandered reading the “classics” assigned to us in high school? The Scarlet Letter. Jude the Obscure. Death of a Salesman. Silas Marner. We hated these books, not just because they were unreadable, which they usually were, but because we were forced to read them. That’s what the compulsive book recommender is — your high school English teacher, Sister Regina Vindicta.
What goes through the mind of the obsessive book giver? Taking the charitable view, people sometimes give you books because they honestly believe that if you want to understand what’s going on in the world, you need to read it. Incorrect. Not everyone is fascinated by the hidden structural causes of unemployment. Not everyone cares what Barry Manilow thinks about Bette Midler. Moreover, people don’t all read for the same reason. Some people read to get information. Others read to be reassured. Most people read to be diverted.
I read because I like the way writers put words together, because language used well has actually changed my view of the world. Great Expectations is superhumanly inspiring to anyone growing up in a housing project. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a personal invitation to the fun house. A James Ellroy novel is like a 450-page tenor sax solo. What the obsessive book recommender fails to understand is: Not everybody likes the sax.
I enthusiastically accept book recommendations from only three people: my sister Eileen, my daughter, and my editor at The Rotarian. Everyone else I ignore. Still, in a spirit of woefully misguided human kindness, every few years I will stack up the books I have been given or have had recommended to me and vow to spend the next three months reading them and clearing the decks forever.
But I get only about 30 pages into the book about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu before I give up. Then a few years later I try again. By then, another half-dozen books have been added to my reading list. The enterprise has become hopelessly Sisyphean. By the way, Sisyphus spent eternity futilely pushing a boulder up a hill. But he didn’t spend eternity writing about it. Otherwise, I would have to read that book, too.
In my office I have a small pile of books I give to people when they ask me for something I think they might really enjoy: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, Darwin, Marx, Wagner by Jacques Barzun, Meeting Evil by Thomas Berger, A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, Light Years by James Salter, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, and Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński. These are books I have read again and again, books that mean a lot to me, books that I honestly believe are as close to perfection as any human undertaking can get.
Sometimes I give them to people and they seem reasonably appreciative. But most times I never hear from them again. On almost no occasion has anyone come back to me and begged for a second “desert island” book recommendation. That’s because they have, perhaps reluctantly, come to understand that these are books that I love, these are books that mean a lot to me, these are my desert island books.
Go find your own desert island.
Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York.
• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.