Thursday, June 23, 2011

What is the Flight Velocity of an Unladen Swallow?

Over the past few years I have answered what seems like a googolplex of questions within the confines of various bookstores. Most are book related, a hefty percentage are the same question or type of question, and far too many of them are insane, inane, and rage inducing. Then there are the questions that strike fear into my heart either because of the depth of their stupidity, their insult to things I hold dear, or the fact that no matter what answer I give the customer is going to get mad at me. The first of the unspeakable questions falls into the last category. It always leads to at least a 15 minute conversation and ends with both the customer and I close to tears of frustration. Here it is:
Can you recommend a book to me? Really just anything.
Nope. No. I can't. Because it's never just anything. You're never as broad a reader as you claim to be. I read all over the genres, and have probably hit at least one book in every section of the bookstore I work in, but if someone were to recommend a Nicholas Sparks book to me I would seriously re-think my relationship with them.
So – I hear the dreaded question. My response is always the same: “What sort of things do you like to read?”
Now – if the customer can give me two or three topics, authors, titles that they like we can save this conversation. I can usually make a recommendation, or I can find the co-worker with similar reading tastes and they can handle it. This rarely happens. More often it continues down this line:
I don't know. I read anything.”
No you don't. If I take you at your word and recommend the great book on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley that I found fascinating chances are you will look at me like I am nuts. Same goes if I suggest a Chuck Palahniuk book. Or, because I'm feeling trapped by this question, The Story of O. Reading is an intensely personal experience. Yes, occasionally a publishing phenomenon will put a majority people on the same page, but I can't even recommend Harry Potter to everyone, because lots of people don't like it, for whatever reason. Same goes for me. James Patterson is one of the top selling authors in the country. He puts out ten books a year. I would rather read a tool supply catalogue than one of his books.
So after I've made my first two or three “anything” suggestions I try to narrow down the customer's tastes once again. And, again, even after the many failed recommendations, they're still not going to give me anything to work with. That's when, much to my personal distaste, I look the person up and down and make a judgement based on physical clues as to what they might like, but cannot or will not verbalize. I feel bad about it, but at this point I can tell what a lot of people are looking for before they ask me anything just by what they're wearing, their general location in the store, and the expression on their face. I've also found that the publishing world occasionally makes my life easier by being able to match people's clothing to a book cover. (This tactic works far more often than I really feel comfortable with. It's kind of terrifying.)
After all this walking, talking, questioning, color-coordinating, and mini-oral book-reports, the customer and I have either settled for a book or have realized the futility of it all and silently walked away from each other, tired and frustrated. I always feel bad, and it almost always ends this way. I know I'm all kinds of snarky and mean on this blog, but I genuinely love books. I love introducing my favorite books and authors to other people, and matching people up with the right book for them. However, I cannot help people who cannot form the most basic of opinions on what they are shopping for. No one can. I have seen groups of booksellers freeze, then scatter when someone asks the dreaded recommendation question.
So- in closing- whatever your opinions on various books, genres, authors are- own those opinions and don't be afraid to express them. And if you can't form an opinion on your own, please don't ask me to guess or make one up for you. Because my recommendation is going to be to find a library, grab a huge stack of wildly different books and start reading. Come back to me when you've found a few you like.

One reads as one dreams, defecates and masturbates-alone.” - John Sutherland How to Read a Novel (Which is an excellent book about books and how we read them.)

BookWench is currently reading Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan


  1. I never gave a customer a recommendation without some sort of clue as to what they would like to read. I nearly choked a few to get an answer, but I still got that clue! You look like an idiot standing there, "Fiction? Non-Fiction? Classic? Modern? Sci-fi? Horror? Romance? Self-help? Computer programming?" until you finally hit on something. Usually it was a genre I had NO interest in, so I'd recommend whatever was on the end-cap. Oops!

  2. Just as much fun is that grandparent who wants something for their "gifted" grandchild but also has no clue to the child's likes and dislikes. All they know are age and gender and that the child reads well above their reading level (which was never the case).