Thursday, October 23, 2008

Recommending Books

One of the things I get paid the big bucks for, down at the book store, is recommending books. Okay, I will confess: I don't really like this part of the job. Sometimes I do -- sometimes I really sense that a customer will like what I like and I turn all fanatic, pressing my favorites on them. And sometimes I feel like a temporary psychic: something just descends on me and I know a customer is destined for a certain book. A woman looking for something for her hip, J.S. Foer-reading niece? That Miranda July collection, duh!

But most of the time I'm a little bit at sea. Do you know what people ask for most of the time? Besides a gift for their precocious 7 year old niece (and I make sure those poor kids get the fancy gift edition of The Secret Garden), they want something "light, uplifting, like a beach read... but not stupid." Aw, geez, man, I dunno! Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is pretty charming and smart, but the guy dies in the end, so is it uplifting? I usually press them a bit more: Do they like The Secret Life of Bees, or The Devil Wears Prada? Exactly what kind of fluff are they after? Or do they not want fluff at all, just something more fluffy than The Tin Drum?

Why do people like what they like? I think about this a lot. Do most people like whole classes of things, or are they more likely to like specific examples of a wide range of things? We assume the former but I think the latter is more common. People are quirky. Sometimes the narrator of a book just ticks them off, and there's no explaining it. It's almost as hard to set people up with a book as it to find them a lover.

And anyway, why are they asking some random schlump behind the counter what to read? Oh, I get it: they want someone to blame. Cousin Wanda didn't like Duma Key? Yeah, well I know whose fault it is -- that bookstore woman's!

There's nothing better than getting a recommendation right, though. I know it's happened to me, though I can't think of any titles at the moment. Do you have any recommendation successes to share? I'll be sure to steal them for my next shift.

10 comments:

Aos said...

Though it is impossible to be certain what a person will like, my greatest successes over the years include Sex Lives of Cannibals (the most amusing true but humourous travel book ever), The Long Walk (the grittiest though disputed as to whether it really happened travel adventure book), All My Friends are Superheroes (see http://blog.godlessromantic.com/2007/11/09/all-my-friends-are-superheroes/),for unassuming yet enthralling fiction.

If I was still in the business, I would be trying to sell Jonathan Ferris' book.

zoe said...

Rhian, you are an excellent suggestor of books. If it hadn't been for you I wouldn't have read Mary Robison or Lydia Davis. If it hadn't been for Ward Six I wouldn't have read Denis Johnson or Barbara Gowdy.

But then, I suppose the readers of Ward Six might have a broadly similar interest in books and probably be fairly happy to leave the comfort zone to try something a trustworthy writer might suggest.

rmellis said...

Aos: I took note! Do you mean Josh Ferris's book? I think I have recommended that one.

Zoe, well, you'd be one of those customers I'd steer right to my "favorites" shelf...

It just occurred to me that part of the problem is that we carry so many new books, and those are the ones people want clues about. It's beyond impossible to keep up with them...

C. Leigh Purtill said...

Back before the internet, people used to go into a record store and hum a few bars of a song or sing a lyric or 2 for the salesperson who would try to find the album they were looking for. I think the same was true of bookstores: people just naturally assumed that bookstore employees, like librarians, had read or were familiar with most of the books in their stores. Nowadays I think most people get their recommendations like Zoe says, from bloggers or reviewers with similar tastes. So when they ask a random store employee for a suggestion, you know they are *really* at a loss. Be kind to them.

rmellis said...

Now, I DO enjoy looking for a mystery book -- when someone says, "That book, it came out, hm, a little while ago? By that guy -- Joseph? Or maybe Eugene Something. Or something Eugene. I think it had a tree on the cover? Or maybe not a tree, roots, or lines, lines of some kind."

I'm like a bloodhound, a bookhound, in a situation like this...

E. said...

Rhian, there are a lot of people in my orbit like the customers you describe, who like to read "something light and beachy." My fail-safe recommendation is Elinor Lipman. I love every one of her novels, and turn to them as fun, funny, and well-written palate-cleansers between the heavy courses.

Other than that, I'm usually stumped, and wind up recommending (and giving) books that excite me. Who knows what people will like? Even my sister and I don't always dig the same things, and she's practically my intellectual twin. I do feel disappointed when I dislike a book she's raved about.

Ha ha! You should recommend "After Life" to those vague drive-by customers!

rmellis said...

Elinor Lipman, thank you. I know we carry her... I give her a shot myself.

Matt said...

I'm certainly not a "beach book" reader, but based upon things like approachability and engagement (without being stupid), perhaps an author like Julian Barnes? He can be funny, matter-of-fact, as well as occasionally profound.

Aos said...

Yes I did mean Josh.

And on that note, I do remember a customer coming in describing a book in quite a bit of detail which I did not recognize at all. I did however take a shot in the dark and say there was this other book that was a little like that but different title different author, but they were adamant that they had all the information correct and gave me more of the story which mirrored the one i had in mind.

Since they insisted it could not possibly be my book and did not want to see my book I gave up. They wandered the store and returned a few minutes later in triumph with their book, shoved in it my face and so much as said that I was an idiot.

The book was the one I had described, my title, my author.

Normally I loved the chase, the finding the book on hardly a hint but only when dealing with the sane.

rmellis said...

Yes, that's a weird element of bookselling: customers sometimes insist on they have titles and authors right when they are actually very, very wrong. You can develop a sense for it and learn to scrape away the dubious information. 99% of customers are wonderful and charming about it, though -- I've never encountered anyone who didn't appreciate my Sherlock Holmesing...