“Recommending books you love is the hardest thing of all,” says Joyce Saricks, 72, who worked for nearly 30 years as a reference librarian in suburban Chicago. Saricks has written several textbooks on so-called “readers’ advisory,” which largely disappeared from libraries after World War II, and is credited with helping spark a national revival in the practice of librarians’ suggesting books to patrons. When a book truly captures your heart, it’s hard not to gush about it: You must read this book! But, Saricks says, “Saying that pretty much guarantees they’re not going to like it as much as you did.”
Librarians disagree about recommendation methodology, and whether the focus should be education or entertainment. Saricks starts with prompts: “Tell me about a book you’ve read and enjoyed” is a good opener. If the person can’t think of one, try: “Tell me about a book you hated.” Listen carefully to responses. Is the person describing characters? Intricate plots? You want to understand the kind of reading experience someone seeks. Don’t give too much credence to genre boundaries; just because someone reads mostly thrillers doesn’t mean suspenseful literary fiction won’t appeal.
Engage with the reader, even a reluctant-looking middle-schooler with a parent standing by. “It’s not that helpful to hear what a parent thinks the child wants to read,” Saricks says. Never suggest just one book; you want the person to leave with two or three. If you’re pushing a book to someone you know, tell him or her why you think they’ll like it.
When Saricks was stumped, she often led patrons into the library stacks, where book spines would spur ideas and conversation. “My colleague used to say, ‘The books know when you’re desperate,’” she says. There are algorithm-based sites that might help you come up with suggestions, including NoveList, Bookish and What Should I Read Next. You don’t need to be an algorithm, though. Often when people are asking for reading recommendations, what they’re looking for, at least in part, is an opportunity to talk about books with someone else who loves them.