Recommending books is often more miss than hit, so I feel a little nervous when I’m asked to suggest ‘a good book’ to read. After all, one person’s ‘good’ is another person’s ‘awful’. Add into the ‘good’ book request mix an immediate under-pressure terror to recommend something suitable for people who otherwise might not be avid readers and I, well, draw a blank. How are you supposed to narrow down the books you read to pick a ‘favourite’? How are you supposed to then select one that might become someone else’s favourite too?
I understand why people look for recommendations—in fact, more often than not I look for them too. We’re time poor and books require a not insignificant time and financial investment, so we want to get it right the first time, every time. But if you’ve ever been a member of a bookclub, you’ll know that reaching consensus on whether a book is good is nigh on impossible. I’ve never been so outraged and so willing to shake someone as I was the night my bookclub did Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, an exceptional, simple, hauntingly-good non-fiction book about a New Orleans businessman who stayed behind to help during Hurricane Katrina.
One guy who shall remain nameless went against the consensus grain that Eggers had crafted a masterpiece and that the American legal system (and, arguably, psyche) is deeply flawed. Without ruining the story for those of you who haven’t yet read it (you should—it’s excellent; and yes, I’m aware of the irony that I’m recommending a book when I’ve just said it’s incredibly difficult to do so), he argued that Zeitoun well and truly deserved what he got. How that guy got out of there alive that night I’ll never know. And anyone who says bookclubs are for the meek and mild should spend a night at ours.
These days I tend to think of reading experiences not as one-size-fits-all book selection, but as being more akin to that of the Goldilocks fairytale—the protagonist tries out things that are too big, too small, too hot, and too cold until they find things that are, for them and them alone, ‘just right’. Which I why I’ll no longer recommend a single book. Instead I apply a kind of Goldilocks Guide to Good Reading and recommend something big, something small, something hot, and something cold to given them a broad and varied selection. My hope is that they find something in the mix that they consider ‘good’ or even ‘great’.