I know I frequently — and with urgency, at times — make book recommendations, and I know that I believe I have excellent taste in books. Maybe I’m even a bit snobbish about it. No, I am. I’ll own that. I’m snobby about it. Books and coffee are the two categories I’m most centrally snobby about. And of course I have very strong political views, and as liberals are frequently accused of being smug, I guess I’ll own that too. Liberal values are better than conservative values. I’ll own it.
But to books: I’m always looking for sources of excellent book recommendations, and sometimes I join various groups in a belief that I’m likely to get them there. The WNYC Book Club, for instance, which operates in a Facebook group. And so far, both books that I’ve read in that virtual book club have been remarkably good: Manhattan Beach, and A Gentleman in Moscow. Dixie’s recommendations have never let me down, and some of her recommendations sit on my “absolute favorites” shelf over on Goodreads.
I’ve asked before, here on this blog and in in-person groups, what it is you seek, as a reader, when you make a book selection. I’ve always enjoyed your responses to those questions. But I think there is another variable at work, and it’s so wholly subjective that it’s surely impermeable to advice. I was thinking about it this morning as I read a post in the WNYC group in which the administrator opened a post to group member recommendations for their favorite “good” books. So this is a group of readers who are smart readers, for the most part, who live in NYC for the most part (and so who have excellent political views), and who participate with great engagement in the book conversations each month when we discuss the selection. But as I scrolled through the list of recommendations, beginning with eagerness and hope, my heart sank. One suggestion after another of titles that were — for me — ordinary. The kind of books that get a lot of buzz and that most people really love, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I thought that book was ordinary, and I went to it excitedly, because I loved Strayed’s Dear Sugar pieces. Loved them so much, found the memoir surprisingly ordinary. And The Glass Castle, the next person who enthusiastically recommends it to me “because you especially will love it!” might get an earful. I hated that book. Hated it.
What I realized, as I read the list of recommendations this morning, was that there’s a specific thing I seek in a book, and that’s a FEELING. I know what the feeling is, and I know it pretty quickly as I read a new book — is the feeling there? — but it’s hard to articulate it because there isn’t a word for it. It’s a kind of deep feeling, maybe a dark colored feeling (which is different from saying it’s a dark feeling), a transportation kind of feeling, a feeling that makes the world drop away. All those things are easy to get, I’m sure you get it, but it’s the feeling that is gathered by them all that I really need in order to deeply enjoy a book. As I look over my “absolute favorites” shelf of 56 titles, I can see that the books are often dark, they’re often about hinge, existential events, they’re often heavy, but not always! City of Bohane certainly wasn’t, nor Lives of Girls and Women, nor Birds of America, nor Bird by Bird, but even those took me to that feeling place that I recognize when it’s present.
Do you know what I’m talking about, even if for you the feeling you seek is completely different? Do you read for a feeling, and is there a consistent feeling you seek, as I do?
(And given the books you see that are most recently on my “absolute favorites” shelf, any recommendations spring to mind?)