I don’t know where the term “must-read” got its start — if it goes back ten or 100 years, first showed up with booksellers or critics, or if “must-see” movies preceded “must-read” books — but I do know that I see a lot of it lately. With a quick search, I found a Newsweek list of the “must-read” books in the age of Donald Trump, and a Wired list of the “must-read” books of this past summer. Vulture and Flavorwire both publish a “must-read” list every month, featuring 7-10 books each. There are listicles across the internet that indicate some set of five to 20 “must-reads” for world-travelers, geeks, or “overwhelmed stepmoms,” for people interested in capitalism, Broadway, China, or almost anything you can think of.
But calling something a “must-read” feels like a false start in any conversation about reading. It’s exaggeratedly exclusive, and it misunderstands the reasons most of us read. I personally read about a book a week, which means at my rate, if I wanted to read everything on Wired’s Summer “must-read” list, that would be all of my summer reading. Plus, it would mean I wouldn’t have time to read anything that wasn’t published in 2016. Though there are many books on that list that I very much hope to get an opportunity to read, I’ve only read one of them so far, and in fact, it’s turning out that I didn’t have to read any of them.
I’m much more likely to consider reading a book — or essay, poem, or story — if instead of somebody indicating to me that I have an obligation to read it, they suggest that I might cherish the experience of it. I want suggestions to indicate that there’s something about the reading experience that I might love — something that I might enjoy, or something that might challenge me and help me grow. I don’t want reading obligations. But I don’t mind reading recommendations.
The “must-read” also suffers from de-personalization. It can be useful to have shared literary touchstones — for us to have a pretty common familiarity with, say, Maya Angelou or The Great Gatsby. But the world of reading is massive, which means it’s fine — even necessary — that while some people are reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, others are reading Clarice Lispector short stories or Stephen King novels, or that people everywhere are reading books that most others have never heard of. The “must-read” not only disregards the huge range of personal taste that exists in the world’s readership, it calls for a streamlining of our collective interest that is boring at best, and alarming at worst. It makes books into trends rather than experiences.
I’m not even sure that we “must” read as a practice, unless we start backpedaling to say that we “ought to,” but even that seems like it’s based in shame rather than encouragement, which isn’t the spirit in which I like to read. There’s an indulgence to reading that we benefit by remembering and celebrating. It’s an indulgence that, for me, includes the stillness of getting lost in something for 30 minutes or three days, while expanding the boundaries of the world as I know it. I don’t do that because I have to. I do it because I want to, which doesn’t make it any less important, but does make it a lot more enjoyable.
In defense of Wired — or many other writers or websites that use “must-read” language — they make some good picks. Probably many people would stand to benefit by reading many of those 14 books. Getting the right book into the right set of hands can change the trajectory of the way a person thinks.
But whether we’re critics or fellow readers, booksellers or teachers, we should imagine ourselves treading water in the books we recommend. If we want prospective readers to come in, to have this experience, too, we need to persuade them that the water is fine. Even if it’s slightly bracing, they won’t freeze to death. There are no alligators, or sharks. I wouldn’t enjoy someone shouting at me that I “must” jump into a lake, just like I don’t enjoy anyone telling me I “must” read The Hunger Games. In both cases, those people are wrong, which makes me feel inclined to do something else.
Reading recommendations are magical things, and they’re probably how most of us have found most of our favorite books. They also often play a pivotal role in publishing, making the difference between the books that find their readers, and those that get lost in the flood.
I feel eager to turn more people into readers, and as a reader myself, I know that the language we use to recommend matters. How can we do a better job recommending books? A good start would be retiring the phrase “must-read.”