Just like there aren’t enough words to describe love and heartbreak and grief, there aren’t enough words to describe how a book is great. You can relate the plot of a book or the subject, and you can talk about style and tone and point of view and lyricism, but a book is really about how it makes you feel. Feelings are not as easy to talk about, so books get boiled down into clichés and sound bites when actually, they are experiences.
A co-worker and friend recommended a book recently, The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez. I could see that she was excited by this book, but the description didn't appeal to me, so I hesitated to pick it up. A while later we were working together when a stack of this book came in for her staff pick. I'd forgotten all about the book, but her wistful smile let me know this was a book she really loved. "Oh, this is your staff pick, right? The one you were telling me about?" She said yes, and then she just smiled and sighed. It was the sigh that convinced me.
In her sigh, she expressed the often futile desire to describe how a book made you feel. What you really want to say is “read this book, please. I promise you will love it. This book touched something inside me and struck a note that still vibrates, and I want you to read it and have that same note sing in you as well. Just trust me.” That little sigh was as close as she could get to expressing her love for this book.
When I'm recommending books, people inevitably want to know what the book is about. I give as short an answer as possible and point out that it doesn’t matter what the book is about. Then I offer an anecdote about how I felt reading the book. The Ministry of Special Cases had tears dripping from my eyes as I stood outside on the corner, late coming back from my lunch break. Madeleine is Sleeping was like being in on a great secret. The Raw Shark Texts had my heart racing like a drug; I couldn’t put it down on the two mile walk from the train to my apartment in DC. And etcetera.
But there’s only so much you can say, only so many times you can say it. Sometimes all you can do is smile and sigh.