My favorite lists are reading lists. To-do list may be a necessity for someone with a flighty memory like mine. Grocery lists help keep the fridge (and our bellies) full. Reading lists are a delight. I have kept a list of every book I’ve finished since 1996. I wish I’d started sooner. I enjoy finding other people’s lists, and that is why I broke a rule, and found myself skimming a LinkedIn post the other day with Bill Gates’ summer reading.
I broke a second rule that day. I read the comments. It serves me right. The rules are there for a reason. What would civilized society be without rules? The comments on any major online publication provide a good illustration.
For the most part, they weren’t too bad. The most annoying comments were the many people who thought they were clever by telling Mr. Gates they were surprised not to find their book on the list, and kindly providing him with a link to the Amazon purchase. Also annoying were those people critical of Mr. Gates’ reading choices.
Perhaps the most common comment of all were those people who insisted on telling Bill Gates which books he should | must | just has to read. I’m going to let you in on a little secret I’ve been keeping for a long time. I rarely read books that people recommend to me.
I can no longer recall how many times I’ve been caught reading a book by a friend, a colleague, or even a stranger, who, upon seeing what I am reading, will say, “Have you ever read SUCH-AND-SUCH? You just have to read it.” Family members have recommended books that have gone unread by me. I don’t think I am ever rude about it, and I will often pull out my notebook and jot down the title and author. But I am really just being polite. The chances of me reading a book recommended to me is pretty slim. Looking through the list of books I’ve read, there are probably less than ten that were recommended by someone else. Less than ten. Out of nearly 700.
Reading is a personal thing to me, and few people know my tastes as well as I do. That is not to say that I don’t branch out, or try new things, but usually, recommendations come from what I happen to be reading. For instance, I recently finished a biography of the great sportswriter Red Smith. Within the book, I read how Smith was once interviewed by Jerry Holtzman for his book No Cheering in the Pressbox. I knew right away I wanted to read that book and I made a note in the margin (something I frequently do while reading) to look it up.
For me, reading is like flying a kite: I go where the wind takes me. I think back to books that my teachers recommended I read while in school. (I could choose not to read the book, but it might affect my grade.) With only a few exceptions did I actually find the recommendation interesting, insightful, or enjoyable.
I tend to read in phases. Right now I’m in the midst of a baseball mania. I’m on my 10th baseball book in less than a month. Someone might see me reading a biography of Casey Stengel and say, “You should really read The Last Season by Phil Jackson.” Sure, they are both sports books, and both written by people who played and managed their respective sports, but one sport is not the other. I have no interest in basketball.
Many recommendations come as non-sequiturs. I could be reading a collection of Andy Rooney essays, and a friend might suggest whatever bestseller he or she just finished. It might even be a book that I’d be interested in reading, but there’s no way I’m going to stop what I am reading for that. And since I usually know what I am going to read next, there’s no point in adding it to an imaginary list of stuff I will read one day. Maybe I’ll get to it and maybe I won’t. A book has to hit me at just the right time and place, otherwise, I’m not interested.
I try to keep this in mind when I recommend books to others. When I write a review, I try to cast it as a book I enjoyed, and here’s why. I try hard not to say, “You should read this!” although, as my dad will attest, I am not always successful.
I appreciate the thought behind book recommendations, but four decades of reading have created a reading style and pattern of thought that is just not geared for generalized book recommendations. This is true for Bill Gates, too. I read through his summer reading list and nothing on the list stirred my interest.