I rarely recommend books.
If I like a book, I assume you've already read it. I'm always the last to know. Perpetually late to the party. Why broadcast that by recommending a book everyone's already read?
If it's a really good book, you might even peg me for a pretentious poseur, title-dropping in a futile attempt to bolster my lit cred. What could be more pathetic?
I know, it's recommending a bad book. If I like a book, it could easily be a bad book, for my reading tastes are rather, shall we say, diverse and non-canonical. "Quantity, not quality" has been my reading creed for most of my life. In pulp I've discovered many guilty pleasures, but I certainly can't push them, can't even admit to indulging in them, what their being guilt-inducing and my not wanting to do anything to add to my already crushing burden of guilt.
Or, horror of horrors, I might not even realize a bad book is a bad book, that my pleasure should've been guilty, until after I've enthusiastically expounded on a book's greatness and you casually but critically point out its obvious shortcomings, its widely acknowledged status as a lesser work, its superb achievement in even getting published, thereby stomping on my fragile self-image once again.
At the same time, I'm no pusher or proselytizer, or at least I don't want you to see me that way, but that's inevitably how it is when I try to recommend a book, for I come on too strong, pitch it too hard, twisting a recommendation into an obligation not only to read the book, but to love it like I do. I can't help myself, I just have this way about me.
And I secretly believe, in my self-centered heart of hearts, that if I really like a book, it must've been written just for me, as if some cosmic coincidence caused the author to pen a book calculated to appeal to me and no one else, to whisper into my ear alone, to write characters with whom only I identify, to intersect with the trajectory of my life right at this very moment, all while honoring my strong sense of unique individuality, a sense that would be severely undermined if you read it too, and liked it like I did, and made me realize that maybe the author didn't have me in mind at all, and somehow I'm afraid this would just ruin the book for me. I'm selfish that way.
And what's worse, having invested myself so completely in a book, I'd take it personally if you didn't like it. Your indifference to the book, well, that'd be indifference to me. And that's something I'm not prepared to invite.
The books I really like have this way of opening my soul. And that's a problem, for my soul is very private, holding, as it does, the keys to my deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities. If I won't reveal my soul to you, why would I reveal it by proxy through books? It's best to keep these things well-hidden from your prying eyes.
Or what if the book doesn't reveal my soul to you at all, but instead reveals something else, something I never intended, something that maybe says something very unflattering about me if it were true, but it's not, but you have no way of knowing that? The classic case is, of course, Lolita, a book no man can recommend without incurring significant reputational risks, but who can say what you'd make of any other book I'd recommend? Knowing you, you'd probably find some dark corner I didn't even see, some perversion of the text I never gleaned, and impute it all to me.
The truly great books, the ones that leave my head spinning and turn my world upside down, are the hardest to recommend. They work on so many levels, both internally and externally, that a big part of the pleasure is that I can't step back from them, I can't develop any sort of critical detachment, I can't even begin to describe them. My words would, at best, minimize these books, inflicting on them a grave injustice, or, more likely, my words would completely ruin the books, polluting them with harmful additives, flavorings and colorings, preventing you from ever appreciating them as I did. If you asked me why I liked a truly great book, the most I could really say is "I can't figure out why, and I don't want to, and that's why it's so great, so read it." Blurbworthy? Hardly.
So, after all this, it may come as a surprise to learn that though I hate dishing out the recommendations, I love taking them in. A thoughtful book recommendation is, for me, the greatest gift. But one I rarely reciprocate. I am so selfish that way too.
Today I leave for vacation a happy man, the beneficiary of many recent recommendations, my bags bursting with books friends and readers were thoughtful enough to suggest I try. Not having read any of these books, I haven't yet invested anything in them other than the cover price and, being the sort who never reads reviews or jacket copy or even blurbs, not wanting anything to interfere with my undiluted absorption of a book, I can't even say much of anything about them at this point so, as a result, I believe I can pass along these recommendations at very little risk to myself. They are:
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy
Nicholson Baker, U and I
Nicholson Baker, The Fermata
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
George Saunders, Pastoralia
Hubert Selby, Jr., Last Exit to Brooklyn
I plan to crack The Wings of the Dove first. Oh wait, that could be read as my recommendation....
And on a related note, not only will I be spending much of August furiously turning pages, I will be torn away from my computer for most of the month, forced, in the service of something called a "vacation," to live, at least temporarily, in that tangible temporal world I keep hearing so much about. So, though I will do my best to cast off my restraints and inflict my words on you even from afar, you will be well served if you keep the following in mind for August: "If you expect nothing, you'll rarely be disappointed."