Have you ever purchased a critically-acclaimed book, only to be severely disappointed after you began it? Has a friend suggested you read a novel, and it left you not only flat but questioning your friend’s sanity? Did you try a book after reading glowing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, only to have a tepid reaction at best?
It’s happened to all of us. You buy a book that’s been recommended to you, so excited to enter its world, and as you invest your precious time into turning its pages you feel…nothing. Maybe you don’t like the main character. Maybe it moves too slow, or conversely seems to fly so fast that the characters are stereotypical at best. Perhaps the story doesn’t capture your imagination, or the setting is unreal to you. Maybe it’s a diverting tale, but it just doesn’t say anything beyond its diverting plot points.
How can you find the books you will love? Whose recommendations can you trust?
This is the ultimate truth to all reviews and recommendations:
They say more about the reviewer than whatever is being reviewed.
In order to know if you will agree with the recommendation, you have to look at the person who recommends it. Is the person selling something or benefitting from the recommendation in some way? Be prepared for high (exaggerated) praise. Consider why the person reads. If for escapism, the book will be escapist. If to think, the book will be deep. If for love of language, the book will be lyrical. If for adventure, the book will be thrilling but quite possibly lack meaning.
If someone likes a book, you can guarantee there will be a character in the book that he or she relates to (and it may not be the main character).
Now, if enough people love (or hate) a book, that really says something, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will love (or hate) it. All you can know from this is that the book made a strong impression, one that inspired a lot of people to sit down and spout out their opinion. But opinions aren’t facts. And we return to my original statement: Opinions reveal more about the person stating the opinion than…okay, okay, you get it.
Which leads me to what matters most: In order to know what review or recommendation you can trust, you have to be honest about why you read. And we don’t all read for the same reasons. Fundamentally, at the root of most all failed book recommendations, I have found that the person recommending the book reads for very different reasons than I do.
If a friend recommends a book, I ask them why they liked it. Specifically. Within a few minutes, I will know if this is a book for me or not.
If I’m reading reviews to find books, I don’t look at the best or the worst reviews (the 5s and the 1s) but focus on the 3s, and then possibly the 4s and 2s. And I don’t take their advice, I look for commonality with the reviewer. If a book has all 1s and 2s, I won’t consider it. If a book has all 5s, I will read the first few pages of the book to see if it resonates with me.
Because whether or not a book (or reviewer…or recommender…) resonates with you is really what determines whether or not you will like it. And the more commonalities you share, the more you will probably like the book.
Reading a good book is like making music with a person you’ve never met. They supply the words, the notes–but you are the one who must read it, must play the sheet music, to bring it to life.
And when a book grabs enough of us, when enough of us are resonating with its pages, that is a comment on what drives us as a collective. What sort of society are we? Where are we going together? What future will we create?
It’s all there, in our favorite books.