January 31, 2022

How to recommend books, or, stop recommending SICP

Many "must-read" books are not well-written. I try to read a lot, but I still have a low tolerance for bad writing and bad editing. I write this post both to discourage thoughtless recommendations and to encourage the receivers of bad recommendations.

For software developers, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is a prime example. Written for freshman at MIT, it is ostensibly an entry-level text. But it requires such a level of competence in math and physics, and the prose itself is so dense and archaic, that I couldn't imagine suggesting it to anyone.

And yet it is one of the most recommended books for developers.

This is not to say that SICP is a bad book or that you should not read it. I just don't think it should ever be suggested to anyone.


The core goal of a book recommendation is for the reader to get enjoyment or education from it. If you can't continue or finish a book, you get nothing from it.

You, the recommender, diminish your impact if you can only recommend books that people won't continue or finish.


Some people have the capacity to read and love challenging books. If that is you, you are not the audience of this post. I don't think you'd disagree that most people are not like you.


I have a few, not-mutually-exclusive guesses why "must-read" books are often poorly written.

One guess is intelligence signalling. That it is human nature for a person to suggest a book in an attempt make herself look smart rather than to best assist the person asking for a suggestion.

Another guess is that most people don't read enough to have a good feel for better or worse writing and editing.

And a final guess is that books that are worth reading might not always be well-written. This is the most unfortunate guess of all. I don't disagree that sometimes it is necessary to learn from poorly-written books. But I begrudge this because of how much joy I get from reading well-written books, fiction and non-fiction.

I have a feeling my guesses apply to recommendations in general: music, art, film, musicals, restaurants, etc.


My suggestion then to folks who are in the position of giving recommendations:

  1. If you had a hard time reading a book or it took you too long to read it (yes, this threshold is different for everyone), don't recommend it
  2. Don't be scared to recommend nothing, or to recommend against (rather than for) a certain book
  3. Read more books

And definitely don't recommend books you haven't read.

Mea culpa

I've definitely done a bad job recommending books in the past, including recommending books I haven't read. I've been trying to do better in the last 5 years or so.

What do you think?