As a reader, I find recommendations difficult to ignore. Even when the pile beside my evening chair is in danger of toppling, something new, received at the insistence of a friend, simply must be cracked open. The same goes for gifts. While I have no trouble composting an unwanted fruitcake, or exchanging a shirt with a dubious collar, any book I receive is worthy of attention. After all, the mere act of putting it forward means that someone not only liked it, they thought it would be particularly right for me. At the moment, for example, I’m thoroughly enjoying John Cleese’s autobiography, So, Anyway. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but my brother and sister-in-law were absolutely correct to pass it along. They knew, better than I did, that the humor of Monty Python would make me laugh just as hard today as it did thirty years ago.
Looking back at the last ten books I read for pleasure, it’s no surprise that over half of them came to me at the suggestion of others. Like many people, I pay attention to recommendations in part because I also know what it feels like to make them. Becoming an advocate for a book you love can be thrilling, almost as rewarding as reading it yourself. When I meet people who like mysteries, I can hardly wait until the conversation allows me to steer them toward The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Anyone I know with interests in boating and history can expect to hear me raving about Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands, and I relish the chance to mention Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to fantasy lovers. Less commonly, I find just the right person for Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham’s primatology text, Demonic Males, and only once did I have the pleasure of encountering a poet with a dark wit who had yet to discover Cemetery Nights, by Stephen Dobyns.
The excitement of recommending a book lies in the hope that you’ve gotten it right, and that the person on the receiving end will love it just as much as you do. But there’s a risk involved as well. Everyone’s reading time is precious, and we don’t want to burden our friends with a title that turns out to be a bad match. What’s more, if they really don’t like the book, there’s always the chance they might think less of those people who do. Making recommendations therefore requires boldness, because in doing so we inherently reveal something about ourselves.
By definition, the act of recommendation involves a personal stake. The word entered English by way of Old French and Medieval Latin, from the root commendare, “to commit to one’s care; to entrust.” For centuries the verbs recommend and commend were used almost interchangeably, their various nuances of praise and suggestion always echoing that original meaning. In modern usage, a recommendation still retains the notion of conveyance, the idea that something of oneself is given in the process. This explains why people so often find the recommendations generated by websites to feel contrived and unsatisfying. In fact, they’re impossible. An algorithm produces calculations, but it cannot make a recommendation because it has no self to give.
To recommend is a human endeavor, one that connects us in an exchange of enthusiasms and small, shared vulnerabilities. In this context, receiving the Pacific Northwest Book Award has special meaning. It comes from a community of professionals we all rely on for recommendations, the thoughtful souls behind “Staff Picks” shelves across five states! Booksellers, like librarians, are essential connectors between people and the written word, standing vigil on the shores of the literary torrent, shrewdly plucking out potential favorites. As an author, I am deeply honored by their recognition, and as a reader, like so many others across our region, I am deeply grateful for their work.
Friday Harbor, WA author Thor Hanson won a 2016 PNBA Award for his nonfiction book, The Triumph of Seeds. He shares this essay with us in celebration of the award. Look for essays from the other winners on this site with the tag “2016 PNBA Awards.”
Thor Hanson’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at Griffin Bay Bookstore in Friday Harbor on April 6 at 7:00 pm. The event, open to the public, will also fête the publication of Thor’s debut picture book, Bartholomew Quill: A Crow’s Quest to Know Who’s Who.