The Book of Regret

The Book of Regret
A shelf of recommendations
Ron Seyb

November 10 2012

Ron Seyb is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair in Government at Skidmore College. As a professor, he often makes book “recommendations” to his students. After reading this particular column, his students may have new answers to the question, “Did you read that book yet?”

The announcement that the Northshire Bookstore is coming to Saratoga Springs is good news for anyone who took Meg Ryan’s side in You’ve Got Mail.  The promise of a bookstore that could, as noted in Saratoga Wire last week, serve “the community [as a] gathering place…where everyone connects with each other” seems to be another nick on the argument that bricks and mortar bookstores will soon be rendered obsolete by the “long tail” of such online providers as Amazon.com.  But while the social benefits of a community bookstore are undeniable, its social costs are equally indisputable.  These costs are not in the familiar coin of increased pollution, crime, or traffic.  The costs are more insidious and corrosive.  They are the inestimable human suffering inflicted on innocents by wrongheaded book recommendations.

Few well-intentioned gestures go more wildly wrong more often than do book recommendations.  I say this as one who is a perpetrator of this crime.  How many times have I recommended Madame Bovary to another?  Well, never, principally because I am insecure enough about my masculinity to hesitate to recommend a novel about a woman, written by a French author, during a time when everyone seemed to succumb to “the vapors.”  But I have recommended Moby Dick to many people, all of whom I knew at some level would enjoy drinking snake venom more than they would enjoy reading 672 pages on whale intestines and whale morphology that Melville clearly did not poll test with the 18-29 demographic.  I have discovered through hard experience that a Moby Dick recommendation is as repellent to most people as the phrase, “Would you like to tour some of our timeshare properties?” is to a harried family trying to negotiate the baggage carousel after a trip to Fiji during typhoon season.

Why is a bad book recommendation more pernicious than a bad movie or restaurant or song recommendation?  Cannot all such “helpful” recommendations fracture friendships, unravel marriages, and sever great power alliances?  The difference between a bad movie, restaurant, or song recommendation and a bad book recommendation is simply the minimal time commitment required by the former.  Those who have to endure a bad movie, for example, may deliver a tart review to the recommender, but the two parties to this misfortune usually overcome this moment without much difficulty.  Such a happy ending rarely occurs when a book recommendation curdles.  The consequence is usually not merely a brief, uncomfortable exchange that is soon forgotten but a protracted, multi-stage death spiral propelled by deceit, browbeating, evasion, and, not infrequently, homicidal rage.

Stage I:  The Deception

Recipients of book recommendations must lie.  I wish that I could qualify this statement with a “sometimes” or even a “frequently,” but I am afraid that this is an axiom that is as absolute as the Pythagorean Theorem or that characters are welcome on the USA Network.  Recipients must pretend that a book of which they almost invariably know little or nothing about intrigues them, a response that can only be insincere.  My mother, for example, is not intrigued by Twitter.  She is frightened by it.  Strange, unfamiliar things should frighten us.  If they did not, then everyone would have helped Richard Dreyfuss build Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes.

Stage II:  The Badgering Followed By the Evasion 

Book recommenders demand from recipients frequent progress reports.  An innocent, “Have you read that book yet?” prompts recipients to enter Magic Eight Ball mode, shaking out of their heads preprogrammed responses such as “The book is on my night table.”  “It is the next book on my list.”  “I just started it.”  “I am enjoying the characters.” “It is so moving.”  “I am about halfway through it.”  “I am almost finished.” “I am taking it with me on vacation to finish.”  “I seem to have misplaced it but I am sure that I will eventually find it.”  “My son left it on the bus.”  “It got mixed up with my daughter’s ballet clothes.” “I used it to beat off a wolverine.”  I suspect that, should I ever have the misfortune of ending up in the underworld, when I ask the devil to hear my appeal of my sentence, he is certain to respond, “The Fallen Angels’ Guide to Judicial Process is the next book on my list.” 

Stage III:  The Eternal Lie or The Snap

In the final stage, recipients must make a choice:  Will they claim to have read and enjoyed the book, with the consequence that the relationship will now be predicated on a lie, or will they concede that either they have not read the book or read it and disliked it, with the consequence that the relationship may fracture.  Emily Dickinson was right:  “There is no frigate like a book.”  She just failed to mention that this frigate is outfitted with 300 mm guns.

I am genuinely looking forward to the arrival of the Northshire Bookstore.  I suspect that I will even eagerly snatch up some of the “Employee Recommendations” that are certain to be proffered by the helpful staff at the bookstore.  I just will not be making any recommendations myself.  Somebody, after all, must remain to tell the tale.



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