Written by: Edward Y., Adult Services Manager
Every library employee that works with the public long enough will experience a patron question fraught with social pitfalls and unexpected angsty reactions, “Do you have a book to recommend?” This may seem innocent enough, but the potential for hard feelings is surprisingly significant in this typical library function.
And that’s because everyone’s different. Yes, not the most profound statement, but it’s a powerful, while latent, consideration for librarians, because we’re already effectively deciding what our patrons read by our purchases, and when asked to suggest a book, we’re taking that powerful mantle on even further. And while it’s of course free for the patrons to try out our suggestion and they lose nothing but a little time if they don’t like it, librarians are still often surprised at how strongly a patron’s dislike might be, and as good civil servants, worry about this accordingly.
So, when someone asks for a suggestion, we usually start what librarians call the ‘reference interview’. We’ll ask what genre of books they might like, or movies and TV shows if they don’t read often, and if the suggestion is for them or someone else who might be a different age group. Then we’ll pry even further, asking fairly personal questions like, “do you want a book that avoids more challenging scenes with violence or sexuality depicted”, or “do you want something warm and light-hearted in mood, or a book with more grim elements?” This matters because some readers are emotionally fragile and have very significant negative reactions to some topics.
Then, the librarian either relies upon her years of experience, or if new to the public library game, she might use a database like Novelist. Try this yourself, you can search for a subject and get suggestions, and even better, when you search for a particular book title, it will then offer suggestions of other titles that publishers and librarains agree are similar in quality and other aspects.
Some librarians, like myself, wind up with a few go-to titles to recommend. These are books I truly loved, and that I know well enough to match to a patron’s preferences when possible. So, here’s a few titles that I rely on:
For patrons who are open to a challenge, both in tone and complexity of the writing, for fiction I always recommend Ian Pears, “An Instance Of The FingerPost”. A mystery that doesn’t feel like a mystery, with some real world 17th century personages written in as characters, this novel hits an incredibly sweet spot in its writing; perfectly balanced between intellectual complexity and swirling emotional movement. Science versus medieval scholasticism, patriarchal contempt of the capabilities of women versus a poignant heroine, and religiosity examined and chronicled, this book is one of the greats.
For younger patrons also interested in a challenging text, I usually suggest the second book of Madeline L’Engles renowned A Wrinkle In Time series. Many folks are very familiar with the first book which offers the same title as the whole series, (and I always tell young patrons to read that one first), the second book, “A Wind In the Door” is a whole other level of eye-opening and intense feelings and concepts. Adults are shown as complex and imperfect, and the young reader is compelled to empathize with their humanity, something too rare in kids book unfortunately, where often the adults are either the all-knowing saviors or the menacing antagonists, both usually so described in cliched terms. Not L’Engle’s adults, they are so real that you can easily imagine knowing them, even as the story soars through a sci-fi landscape beset by supernatural evil.
For adults wanting something lighthearted, are/or free of the more negative elements of existence, I tend to rely on Nora Roberts. She’s a member of the modern fiction elite, like James Patterson or Lee Child, selling millions of books worldwide. Also, (and I’m compelled to add the judgmental phrase, ‘unlike those other two authors’), she’s consistently good. She writes all sorts of genres, some very dark and cutting, and somehow cranks out a dozen books or more a decade, seemingly rarely using additional writing partners so prevalent in her industry. Many of her books are light-hearted, breezy romances that anyone can enjoy. Her Three Sisters Trilogy is an easy recommendation, even grouches like me appreciated it.
And lastly, for a ‘safe’ youth recommendation, I take a slight risk and usually recommend Katherine Applegate’s “The One and Only Ivan”. Yes, it has the grim element of a gorilla caged in an uncomfortable display in a west coast mall, (based on a real menagerie), and his animal friends go through some tough times, but the beautiful love felt throughout this book is so joyful, so uplifting, that everyone can enjoy it.
So, if you decide you’re going on a trip and want to get a librarian recommendation on a book, don’t be surprised if we do a bit of interrogating. We want to get that recommendation right!