Columns > Published on May 2nd, 2022

The S-Word: Never Tell Someone They "Should" Read A Book

The S-Word for book recommendations isn’t “shit,” it’s “should.”

Although telling someone they “should” read a book is a shitty thing to do.

It sounds harmless, but you’re putting people in a spot they don’t appreciate.

And the result is that they’ll turn away from a book they’d love.

Let’s talk it out.

What People Should Do

If two years of pandemic taught us anything, it’s that people hate when you tell them what to do.

Doesn’t matter if it’s for their direct benefit, doesn’t matter if it could preserve their lives. If you tell someone they shouldn’t dine at Burger King, something they didn’t even want to do up to now, they’ll be cheeks-deep in a Whopper before you can say, “Have it your way.”

When you recommend books to someone, it’s about them, not you.

Is anyone out there looking for one more person to tell them what they "should" do? Is anyone actively seeking a relative unknown to give them advice on their day-to-day life?

Nobody likes to be told what to do. This extends to reading.

Tell someone what they “should” read, and you light the fuse on a defiance bomb.

I can’t explain it, I can’t tell you why we’re all this way. It just is.

What's The Stuff You "Should" Do?

Take out the garbage. Start exercising. Call your mom.

“Should” stuff is the sort of stuff that you think will make you a better person or give you a better life, but “should” doesn’t feel good. “Should” is not fun.

“Should” books aren’t fun books. You don't hear anyone say, "You've been busy and exhausted lately. You should read a John Swartzwelder."

Reading doesn’t always have to be fun, but most readers can figure out the “should” books for themselves. There’s no shortage of “should” book recommendations and people who want to tell others what to read.

Use your energy to recommend books outside the “should” box.

Waste Of Space

If you're recommending a book, you might have a few lines, a few seconds, maybe a couple-hundred characters to get someone's attention.

Don't waste even a sliver of that already-tiny opportunity to say, "You should read it."

The text of your recommendation should make that part clear.

Tainted Waters

When you’re in a gym and someone gives you pointers on your form, usually with the phrase "Here's what you should do..." you can just about guarantee the advice-giver is some dumbass whose primary squatting experience was gained taking a drunken shit in an alley one night.

Humiliation won’t draw anyone into a great book.

You might be a great book recommender, you might have the right intent, but you have to remember there are a lot of dillweed meddlers out there who’ve tainted the activity. Authors pimping their own books when they don’t fit the bill, publishers who just so happen to recommend lists of things they published this year. People who run for-profit book clubs. Booktokers looking for those Likes.

These experts use “should” language all the time because it's important to them to be seen as experts. They’ve ruined "should" for the rest of us.


When I used to coach middle school track runners, sometimes I had to have a talk with a kid who was entering puberty. A talk about body odor. 

I'd never have this chat in front of the kid's friends. I'd definitely never use Twitter to tell a kid that a couple swipes of deodorant would solve the problem. 

Telling another person what they “should” read in a public or online setting can be humiliating for them. It implies that they're doing something wrong, and it exposes that in front of everyone. It feels like everyone is watching to see how they'll respond.

Humiliation won’t draw anyone into a great book.

Love Triangle

You told me what I should read, and now I’m reading, looking for the part that made you think I should read this particular book.

“Is it this section? That one? Hey, just what the hell did he mean when he told me to read this, anyway?”

The reading experience isn’t about me and the book now, it’s an investigation into what you think of me, as demonstrated by the book.

That’s a terrible way to read.


Say what YOU liked about a book and what it meant to you. That way, when you’re like, “I was pretty into the weird sex on an alien world with an Ice Planet Barbarian,” the listener can make their own decision about whether or not they’d like that sort of thing. They can judge you instead of you judging them.

Say what other readers liked about it. Say what other fans of the book are like, in general. “Longmire readers like mysteries with some humor thrown in and characters you can really grow to like over the course of a series.”

Talk about the vibe. “This book gives me a very Better Call Saul vibe. It’s kind of hard to describe, but I just get a similar feel from it.”

Make it clear that you’re not suggesting a book instead of their current read, or even that this book has to be next in line. Just that they might give it a look.

Don’t say someone “should” read a book you wrote. That’s the ultimate arrogant jerkoff move. Tell them about your book, why they might like it, and let them decide to read it.

Just leave off "should." "Should" almost always comes at the beginning ("You should read this, it's a story about...") or at the end ("...a group of people try to save an arcade with a topless car wash. You should read it!") of the recommendation. Leave it off. The person you're talking to isn't THAT stupid. They can tell by your tone and your words that you're endorsing the book.

The Biggest Bit

When you recommend books to someone, it’s about them, not you.

Squash the desire to be the person who recommended a great book to someone else. I know, it feels amazing, but you need to check your ego and remember that the point of recommending a book is to get someone to try it out, not to make you feel good.

Besides, if you nudge enough books into the path of the right readers, you’ll get a thanks now and again.

Don’t use a book recommendation to make someone else love, respect, or reconsider their opinion of you. Don’t recommend a book so people see you as well-read.

A book recommendation should do one thing: put the book in the reader’s hands.

Get The Spy With No Pants by John Swartzwelder at Amazon 

Get Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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