Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 3: On Recommending Books

My friend Matt didn’t like The Religion. He didn’t like it at all.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Religion, it’s a 2006 novel by Tim Willocks set against the backdrop of the Siege of Malta in 1565. It’s incredibly violent, but it’s also one of the most immersive reading experiences that I’ve had in recent years. I lost myself in The Religion. I even felt a bit like I was living through the Siege of Malta in real time. I would wake up in the morning and read The Religion, wading through mud and filth and gore, then go to bed with the memory of it all still fresh, only to begin the whole thing again the next morning. I actually got to meet Tim Willocks for the first time recently, and I told him how much I’d liked the book. Apparently, the sequel, entitled Twelve Children of Paris, is written, and will be published later this year. Spoiler alert (not): it sounds like it’s going to be pretty violent again.

But Matt, who turned up to say hello at the Mystery Bus tour’s New York stop, didn’t like The Religion. Now Matt may well be wrong about the book – hell, he’s frequently wrong about things, albeit in an interesting way, while I, needless to say, am always right, although I am open to hearing other people explain why they think I might be wrong, if only because I find it amusing – but I felt an unexpected pang of guilt for enthusing about the book to such an extent that he felt obliged to read it, and then persevered with it even though he wasn’t enjoying it.

“But why did you like it?” Matt asked plaintively and, as I tried to explain to him why he was so patently wrong about it, he just looked more and more bewildered, and, I might venture to suggest, even hurt. “Why? Why?” he persisted, and I started to feel a bit as though I’d let him down in some way, rather as if he’d entrusted the care of his houseplants to me while he was away and I’d deliberately let them die, laughing as they wilted on the windowsill.

That’s the difficult thing about recommending books to others. As a writer who is, first and foremost, also a reader, I get asked to recommend books quite often, insight than the norm into the relative quality of various works of literature. But our taste in books is so personal, and so dependent upon factors unique to us – our life experiences, our reading history, even the mood that we happened to be in when we first began reading the book in question – that expecting others to have a similar reaction to a book we ourselves have loved is probably a mistake. They may like it, but equally they may not. Naturally, if they don’t like it they’re wrong, but at least they’ll be wrong in a way that we can understand, if we try.

Still, the rejection by another of a book that we have liked, even loved, brings with it a range of emotions. There will be disappointment that the recipient of our book largesse has failed to appreciate its value, and a sneaking suspicion that we may have entirely misjudged the person in question, leading us to wonder what the hell we were thinking when we started being friends with them in the first place; but there will also be a modicum of guilt, for we, however inadvertently, and with only the best of intentions, have committed that most grievous of book sins: we have forced another person to read a book that did not give them pleasure. We have wasted a little of their valuable store of reading time, for we only have so much time on this earth, and only a limited number of books that we will be able to read in that time. Those of us who love books dearly will die with unread books on our shelves. We may even keep ourselves alive for long enough to finish the book that we are reading on our deathbed, rather like the 19th century reader who was reputed to have clung to life for long enough to read the last installment of the Dickens novel that was being published at the time before finally expiring, presumably content. As we grow older we become increasingly intolerant, even resentful, of books that squander our time and energy. We hear the clock ticking, and the voices of all of the better books on our shelves crying out to be read. For readers, it is not money that is the principal currency, but time. We have to be careful with it, and spend it wisely, for there are too many books, and too few hours to accommodate them.

So I’m sorry that Matt didn’t like The Religion. To make up for it, I’ve promised to find him something that he will like. It’s a task that I’ll take seriously. I’ll think long and hard about it.

And then I’ll buy him the sequel to The Religion.


Patrick Larsen said...
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Patrick Larsen said...


Hi, John.

Just a quick note to say I am enjoying your Charlie Parker series, to which I've come quite late, I see. Though, I'm excited that there are 7 more books awaiting me. The ones with paper and ink and hardcovers, by the way. Just finished THE KILLING KIND. Oh, my. That Pudd is a nasty one! Ewww.

Thanks for doing what you do so well. Normally, I'd swing by the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca to say so in person. It's one on my favorites. But, I moved from Brooklyn recently to upstate NY so that I can try to do what it sounds like you did summer of '97.

I was tempted to drive an hour to Albany to catch your tour bus, but we have company this weekend and I thought it might be rude to disappear for a few hours around dinner (since I'm the chef).

Nonetheless, I hope you have fun on the tour and that our paths will cross some day. Godspeed to you and Charlie - you might not need it, but I can already see that he'll need whatever help he can get.


Fred de Vries said...
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Fred de Vries said...

I've just ordered 'The Religion' by Tim Willocks. I hope I like it like you do. If not... ;)

Mich said...

'Tis such a strange mix of guilt and irritation when someone else dislikes your book recommendations. I didn't speak to my brother for a whole week after I forced Pullman's Dark Materials on him with a "THESE ARE THE BEST BOOKS EVER I SWEAR" only to be told that little bro thought they were rubbish.... And I'm still not sure if my not speaking to him was because I was furious at his ignorance, or guilty about wasting his time.

Catalina603 said...

I loved THE RELIGION. So well written I felt I was there in Malta and am now a trip to visit to see this beautiful place with such a heart wrenching history. Cant wait for the sequel. Am giving THE RELIGION to a friend (history buff) for b day gift...I always give books or book certifi,cates....gave my TV away and glad I did....SO MANY BOOKS..SO LITTLE TIME...if you are just getting started reading instead of tv...start with Hemmingway..u ll be hooked...Sarah

TheSmokinGun said...

I am anxiously awaiting the sequel to The Religion. I too have had others reject some of my favorite books, so I feel your pain. But, you are correct, in that it is something personal and, much like food, not everyone will agree with you.

Eric Mena said...

THE RELIGION was AWESOME!! I just suggested it to a friend about 5 minutes ago. I told her to read the prologue. She read half of it. She is going to the library later today to get herself a copy. Its such an epic story from start to finish. I too, can not wait for the sequels!

DGigi said...
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Aaliyah theukflight said...

I moved from Brooklyn recently to upstate NY so that I can try to do what it sounds like you did summer of '97.
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Jeremy Hankins said...

There are a few authors that I follow religiously. You are on that list and so is Tim Willocks. Your recommendation of The Religion is spot on. I'll be hunting down the sequel as soon as I complete your latest Charlie Parker novel.