Scott Woods: You’re Asking for Book Recommendations All Wrong

Take the advice of a longtime librarian and change the way you look for books on social media.

Scott Woods
To find a good book, start by clarifying your question.

As a person who has worked in public libraries for almost 30 years, I want to share a secret with you. Librarians have many secrets, but this is the kind of secret that helps others when it is revealed. In fact, we should probably take it off the List of Library Secrets (Dewey #020 Library & information sciences) and shelve it under Info for the Public Good (Dewey #613 Promotion of health).

Here's the juice: You’re asking for books the wrong way.

More precisely, you’re asking for books the wrong way on the internet. People who visit actual libraries tend to have a different vibe, so we can engage them without any problems. The request is an opportunity to have a conversation about books, which most librarians are pretty passionate about. The problem I want to address is, like so many other evils in the modern world, an online invention. Here’s what it looks like:

“What’s a good book to read?”

Good lord, what a horrific question. That’s textbook self-harm. It’s masochism masquerading as a question. You’re almost assured of getting nothing but wrong answers.

Sure, “wrong answers” are right answers for the right people. But given the lack of info you’ve provided, chances are high that any random book offered by any random person on the internet will leave you wanting. And let’s be honest: That question isn’t looking for a book. You can find a book anywhere. You’ve probably got one in the trunk of your car, warped from weather and grocery smashing. You don’t just want a book. You want a book you’ll like.

Scott Woods

Now this is you: “Well, I did ask for a GOOD book.” Again, this is useless information by itself. You think these people on the internet know you well enough to know what you think is good? You know from experience that they don’t. Remember that time you had a cold and you deigned to share that information on Facebook? Remember how the responses ranged from taking a Scandinavian ice bath to stuffing crystals in your nose? Remember how you didn’t even ask for remedies? These people don’t know you. And you know they don’t care by the way they just jump in and start shooting titles at you without a single qualifying question. It’s like being on a blind date and all the guy (of course it’s a guy) does is talk about himself.

No, baby, what you need is someone who cares, who listens, who wants to know what makes you tick. You want someone who asks questions, who wants to know how you feel, what you like. Someone who wants to do the dance in your mind. You want a librarian-type situation. Alas, you’re on the internet taking a survey from sycophants and narcissists with a little free time on their hands.

My recommendation: Take the time to narrow down the question. Statistically, recommendations improve by at least 50 percent when you qualify your request with “Fiction, please” or “No fiction.” If you just say that—“Fiction, please”—boom: no biographies, no self-help tomes, no history of anything. Just stories coming out of the heads and hearts of writers and the people who read them. Obviously, that still leaves you with a ridiculous amount of ground to cover, but at least you’ve narrowed it down to half the planet. U.S. publishers produce approximately 800-1,000 new books per day. You want to do some weeding before things get hectic.

The other quickie qualifier that seems most helpful is genre, which narrows down the pile. That said, genres go through phases of quality and sensibility, so I find this standard is helped greatly by assigning a time period to it. 1970s horror is very different than 2000s horror. What passed for literary fiction in the 1960s is quite different than what’s on the lists these days. So do yourself a favor and toss in a decade or “post-1950” in there somewhere.  The average American reads one book per month, so it’s wholly possible that this advice will fall on deaf ears. But consider that the world is rarely changed all at once. It is instead moved into the future by pockets of change all around us: this neighborhood, this school of thought, this company’s product. If I can just get my social media feeds together, I can live with that. Happy hunting.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.