Why I have trouble recommending books

I got a comment on my Critical Reading and Pagan Books article today that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post. Namely – why I have trouble recommending books to people who ask “I’m new to Paganism, where do I start?” (The nice commenter had asked for suggestions, and the next tab over is with going to make a stab at that – but before I could write that, it made sense to write why I’ve got trouble with it.

My background:

A large part of this is because of my professional training as a librarian. In the library world the question “What should I read?” is called ‘reader’s advisory’. There’s a reason for this. It’s not meant to be me sitting there and saying “These are the true great books” – it’s meant to be suggestions and ideas.

Note the ‘suggestions’, not ‘recommendations’. There’s a difference. As a librarian, I may be suggesting books I’ve never read (because, as much as I read, there’s no way I can keep up with everything. Or even a tenth of everything!) Since I’ve never read them, I may not be sure whether there’s something that might be objectionable to the reader (or just plain not what they’re interested in. I don’t want to put my personal weight (and recommendation) behind a book I only know from “If you like X, you might like Y!” or reviews.

There’s another part of this: it’s supposed to be a conversation, not a monologue. Different people look for different things in books, and what they need at a given time may not be what first springs to my head. If I want to give them really *useful* suggestions, I need to talk to them. I need to ask them questions.

Here’s the thing: most people don’t know how to talk to other people about their reading, and what they look for. Some people do, of course – but often, people want books ‘like’ some other kind of book, but don’t have the detailed language to describe that. Mostly, this is because it’s not something we do all the time. (Well, unless you’re an author or librarian or just like geeking about different types of books. Lots of my friends do, but I’m well aware it’s not the way most people function.)

In fiction…

There are different ways to break this down, but I like Nancy Pearl’s approach – what she calls the Doorways to Reading. There’s a nice summary of her presentation on this as it applies to fiction over here, but basically, she breaks it down into four different doorways. Different people have different doorway preferences (they’re listed with the most common ones first)

  • Story. What happens. These are the “I couldn’t put them down” books, the ones where you keep reading until 2am because you want to know what happens next.
  • Character. These are the books that appeal to people who like fully-rounded or three-dimensional characters.
  • Setting. These books create a very strong sense of place and time – including historical fiction, historical mysteries, and historical romances.
  • Language. These books are often award winners: they’re a joy to read for the sheer way the author uses language and description.

People often have more than one preference: I’m about equally divided between character and setting, in many ways (and this is arguably why I read the science fiction and fantasy I do, but also a lot of historical mysteries.) But I also enjoy books with large doorways to story and language, when I’m in the right mood

Books also often have more than one doorway – they’re just somewhat different sizes. I’d argue, for example, that one of the reason that the Harry Potter books were so successful is that they basically manage to hit all four doorways in some way. You have a very engaging and fast-moving plot. You have interesting characters whose motivations and histories can be endlessly analysed. You have an unusual setting, and one that captures people’s imaginations. And you have – through the use of created words – some interesting entry points for people who appreciate language-centered books (though Rowling’s prose style is not similar to a lot of books that language-doorway people usually prefer.)

How this applies to Pagan stuff:

Really, a lot of the same issues apply. When someone says “Hey, an you recommend some books?”, I end up feeling stuck, because all of my professional instincts are saying “Not enough information!” When I’m on a forum discussion board, it’s generally fine, because I can ask them some more questions.

There’s also the tricky part: to ‘recommend’ a book means that I’ve read it myself, and read it recently enough that I recall any potential issues or considerations for the person I’m suggesting it to. There are books where this is easy – but there are also books where it’s trickier.

I read a lot (somewhere between 200 and 300+ books a year plus a lot of online reading), so between now and the last time I read a particular Pagan book, there might be quite a lot of material that’s gone into my brain. Remembering the specific details of what a given book said, and whether I had significant concerns about it often doesn’t stick well without some review. I’m working on improving that, by rereading things, and taking notes, but it’s a slow process, and fairly far down on my priority list

Now, I have done a bunch of thinking about this, since going to Nancy Pearl’s workshop last March. One of the things that’s clear to me is that people look for Pagan material in specific ways. I’m working on a write up of that, but in the meantime, have a couple of links to other material:

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