A friend texted. She was at a bookstore, about to go camping. What should she buy to read on the trip?
I know this woman very well, and I am constantly pushing books on her. Whenever she visits (whenever she used to visit, that is, before the pandemic) she never leaves without an armful and sometimes a sackful of books to read and share.
She gets books from me for holidays — her whole family does. I am the Book Lady.
I love recommending books. It brings me joy to match a book I love with another person.
But on-the-spot recommendations are not my strong suit. My brain freezes. Sometimes I can’t remember any book titles, let alone appropriate ones.
I replied to her text, sending a bunch of suggestions, more than she would ever be able to read in a single camping trip: Curtis Sittenfeld, Larry Watson, that eel book, that owl book, the mysteries of Charlie Finch, “True Grit,” and a big fat novel by Marian Keyes.
She wrote back, “Thank you!” and she wrote back “Ha!” and I have no idea which, if any, of those books she bought. I put away my phone, thinking that pop quizzes are not my forte.
It’s not that the books I recommended were substandard — they weren’t! They were all great books, for different reasons.
But had I had time to think, I could have matched the book to the occasion — camping? How about Sigurd Olson? Headed to Blue Mounds State Park? Oh, you need some Frederick Manfred!
Even with time to think, recommending a book is always risky. Sometimes my enthusiasm is overwhelming. If it’s a book I loved, the pressure is on for the other person to also love it. And what if they don’t? What does that say about them? What does it say about me? What, if anything, does it say about the book?
A while ago, another woman I know asked for recommendations of uplifting books. Books, she said, in which the dog does not die.
I sent her Mary Miller’s delightful “Biloxi,” in which the dog definitely does not die, although other things happen to it.
I never heard back.
I torture myself: Did she like it? Did she hate it? Did she read it? Did it ever arrive?
Recommending a book can be a deeply intimate thing to do. We love the books we love for all kinds of reasons — because of who we were when we first read them, or because of what was going on in our life. Because the dog didn’t die, or sometimes because the dog did die.
Or we love the book because the language strikes us, or because the sentiments echo our own, or because the story opens up a world of thoughts and ideas that we had never before considered.
It’s no wonder that when a book thrills us, we want it to thrill others. And it’s no wonder that that’s not always the way it works out.
I am learning, after many years, that when I suggest a book, it’s perfectly fine for the person to dislike the book, or even to never read it. The important thing isn’t that the book connected with me — it must connect with them.
This takes the pressure off, though don’t think for one minute that it stops me. I will always recommend books when someone asks, and sometimes when they don’t. I will always be the Book Lady.
It does make me curious, though. Do you feel affronted if someone rejects your recommendation? Do you hate having books pressed on you, or do you like it? How do you respond if someone suggests a book that you don’t like?
Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s talk about this.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.