The Expert’s Guide to Writing Book Recommendation Lists

It is as inevitable as the green sky above us, the annual migration of the giant oak trees, and the monthly return of the triple moons: sooner or later, well-read fans will be inspired to assemble a list of recommended books for younger people or other fen.

I’m a list veteran, having compiled my first list in grade thirteen at a teacher’s request. Surely my lifetime of reading and listing qualifies me to offer timely advice to others contemplating their first lists—lists that I am sure will end up being every bit as apropos as the ones that populate so many discussions of this sort.

The most important rule is do absolutely no research.  If the titles don’t come to mind at once, then how on Earth can they be significant works? Disregard those croakers who dwell overlong on just how many science fiction and fantasy books have been published over the decades and on the fallibility of unassisted memory. Consider this: if memory were notoriously unreliable, wouldn’t I remember that?

So set aside your Science Fiction Encyclopedias (print, of course), your ISFDBs, your walls of Locus magazines, the blogs, the notebooks, the vast libraries of information at your disposal. Full speed ahead, damn the research, and awe those darn kids with your effortless command of the field.

No real need to consider anything after 1980 or so. All the canonical works had been published by that point; everything after that is mere recapitulation. People are people, no matter the era, so it seems unlikely that someone in 1990 had something to say that a person in 1960 had not already said. (Don’t feel the need to doublecheck that. That would be research.)

It is vital to take your audience into account. Never forget that how grateful kids should be for the advice they so desperately need. Any consideration of the possibility that things might have changed since the time when digital watches were cool would be mere pandering. That might also require research, which we have ruled out.

Finally, remember that all art involves a certain level of risk. Having done the hard work of jotting down the first dozen titles that randomly came to mind, you may not receive the accolades you are assuredly due. Know that audiences often fail to appreciate the magnitude of your effort. They might be tepid, or even (I am very sorry to have to tell you this) vocally critical.

Hard-working book-recommendation-list-crafters may encounter outrageous claims such as:

  • Women authors exist.
  • Non-white authors exist.
  • Leave It To Beaver did not encompass the entire range of human sexuality.
  • There is a world outside of the region in which one grew up.
  • There are languages other than English.
  • Readers may no longer tolerate sexism and racism.
  • Your list looks suspiciously like many other lists, but with the order slightly rearranged.

It is important to show your audience who is boss. Shouting (or pounding away furiously in ALL CAPS) is always a good start, as are the sort of typos one produces while typing in a rage. The audience’s job is a simple one: to adore the exact same things you did decades ago, without regard for the fact that times have changed since your tastes morphed into sedimentary rock. Do not be afraid to provide these readers with the guidance needed to help them understand how wrong they are. After all, you are the list-maker. You’re not the one who needs to learn something.

Photo: Heffloaf; edited from the original (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.

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