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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Internet Book Recommendations--Helpful or Or Not?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently on the subject of recommending books. I read a lot of fiction and a lot of non-fiction books on the craft of writing. I originally designed my website with a "Recommendations" page, and I've started a bookshelf at Goodreads.

But is there really any point?

How many times have you bought a book with great reviews on Amazon.com and yet you ended up disappointed? It's hard enough to recommend books to people you know, much less strangers on the Internet. I can't even count the number of I've recommended a book to a friend and they've ended up asking me afterward, "You liked this?" (as if I'd made them read something typed out by a bunch of monkeys on crack).   

The problem is, even if you know the person, taste is difficult to pin down. For example, my two favorite novels are The Stand by Stephen King and Gone with the Wind. Could the two books be any more different? The Stand falls under my "taste" (I generally enjoy horror novels), but Gone with the Wind doesn't (however you categorize it: I don't read romance, I don't read historical fiction, I don't read chick lit). And even if you stick with my tried-and-true taste, horror, there are stories and even writers that I don't like in the horror field. So I could pick up the latest five-star horror novel and still end up feeling like I've wasted my money.

In spite of it all, Internet recommendations still have value. They can help narrow down the field a bit. Rather than having an infinite number of books on our "to be read" lists, we can keep it down to a few dozen based on the recommendations (or a few hundred books, in my case; I'm an overachiever). And the most important function is that the recommendations might force us out of our usual genre/tastes and cause us to find something that we love and might have missed had we not taken the chance on it. Case in point: the Stephanie Plum series from Janet Evanovich. I would never have read the first one, One for the Money, if it hadn't been for a friend insisting that I'd love it. Turns out, the friend was right, and I'm now the proud owner of the whole series (sixteen books!--no monkeys on crack).

So recommend away; just don't be surprised if you end up with a recommended "clunker" every now and then.

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