Recommending Books: The Author, the Reader, and the Story by bestselling mystery author Peg Herring.
It’s my practice to go into a bookstore and say to a clerk, “What do I want to read?” This results in great discussions of books and authors, and I usually leave with two or three interesting prospects. Does my method result in reading bliss? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Although clerks are generally eager to help, they can’t predict what I’ll love ... and what I’ll hate. They know what’s out there, but reading involves complex interplay among the reader, the writer, and the story. Predicting how those will mesh is tricky.
Although some authors write beautifully, I never buy their books. Elmore Leonard, James Patterson, Louise Penny, and Janet Evanovich are just a few authors whose legions of fans don’t include me. I've tried them all, but there was no spark between us.
Why is that? First, an author’s view of life colors everything he writes. Readers expect one sort of story from Lee Child or a C.J. Box and a completely different sort from Charles Todd or Laurie King. They’re all good writers with good plots, but the tone of each differs widely. Publishers hint at tone in blurbs and cover art so readers aren’t blindsided by unexpected violence or bored by cerebral investigations. Smart readers learn to note words like “dark,” “intricate,” and “zany” so they don’t buy books they’ll hate.
Enjoyment of a book depends on the reader’s viewpoint as well. Readers walk around in an invisible circle that delineates areas we’re willing to venture into. Outside that circle are plots we can’t believe in, characters we don’t like, and events we don’t want to know about. Behind it are genres we once enjoyed but have outgrown (I once did a decade of biographies). Before us are areas of reading we haven’t yet ventured into (maybe sci-fi is somewhere in my future). The fact that most readers seldom step outside their circle is neither our fault nor the writer’s.
A reader reacts to what he reads through the veil of his own experiences, and those things can’t be transferred to someone else. We’ve all given a book we loved to a friend who returned it later with an embarrassed air, maybe even with the admission he didn’t finish it. How did your friend miss the brilliance you saw in those words?
As we lean into a book, we can’t keep ourselves from falling between the pages. Some books we know are good--those with awards and great acclaim--leave us cold, while books the world hardly notices can strike a chord that makes us look for more from that author. I stopped reading The Gold Finch halfway through. Having often dealt with teenagers who’d lost their way in the world, it was painful to see the protagonist go through page after page of self-destructive agony. A book I saw as amazing, The Poisonwood Bible, brought yawns and even negative responses from my friends. The book spoke to me at that point in my life. Either it didn’t speak to them or it said things they didn’t want to hear.
Recently, a friend recommended All the Light We Cannot See, so I read it. She put it into her top five all-time books, and when I finished it, I thought, “Yes, that was a good read.” Recently, however, I found The Nightingale: same era, same location. That one knocked my socks off in a way the other didn’t.
Recommending books is an art, so I don’t envy the bookstore clerk who gets to tell me what I should read next. I’m sure they learn not to be offended when customers refuse their suggestions. Likewise, you shouldn’t be offended when a friend doesn’t get from a book what you got. The writer is no doubt talented; there are plenty of accomplished writers out there. The plot is probably okay, too--at least for some readers. It’s how the reader interacts with the author and the story that determines whether a book will go on his list of good reads and everybody’s “Best Books Ever” list is different.
How about you? Where do you get your book suggestions?
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