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Just Trust Me: In Praise Of Strange Books

As a fantasy author, most people assume that fantasy is what I prefer to read. And sometimes it is ... but if you ask me about my favorite kind of books, I'm as likely to reply "magical assassins suffering existential crises" or "toxic relationships among time-travelers" as I am "science fiction and fantasy."

And when I ask for book recommendations, the conditions I give rarely fall along the neat divides of genre. "Give me something dark," I'll say instead. "The kind of story that makes you question your morals, your tastes, your reality." Or better yet, "Give me a book that sunk its teeth into you. One that changed you, left you a little different by the time you were done."

I love books that make me backtrack my own declarations of preference, ones that catch me off-guard, surprise me, keep me on my toes. I want stories that don't fit into easy boxes, ones that defy their own ostensible categorization, that make those who recommend them stumble, before finally saying, "Just trust me."

The problem, of course, is that in most cases, we aren't offered this kind of tailored option.

Walk into a bookstore, or peruse the digital shelves, and your options are simple, static, unchanging: Fiction or Nonfiction? Romance or Thriller? Young Adult or Adult? And as we reach of the end of the year, and the inevitable onslaught of "Best Of" lists, we find the same tried and true delineations.

I'd love the chance to use filters that serve to expand a category instead of narrowing it, breach the boundaries of the familiar and provide something intersectional, liminal, unexpected.

But what about the books that defy easy classification, the ones that fall between the slats of the bookstore shelves? The ones that you are bound to overlook, simply because they don't fit?

Those are the ones I want to find.

NPR's Book Concierge takes a slightly more malleable approach, allowing readers to filter the results into the classic categories of Fantasy or Nonfiction or Young Adult, but also into more interesting and dynamic ones, such as "Eye-Opening Reads" or "It's All Geek to Me" or "The Dark Side."

Why can't we have this kind of approach to recommendations year-round, and preferably from more than one source? I'd much rather find stories under the marquee of "Women in Power" or "Mind-Bending Plots" or "Incredible Books that Aren't Debuts." I'd love the chance to use filters that serve to expand a category instead of narrowing it, breach the boundaries of the familiar and provide something intersectional, liminal, unexpected.

With this kind of system, filtering doesn't mean narrowing, so much as cross-referencing, trading one lens — a static, familiar one — for something dynamic.

And I'm not looking for a guarantee. When readers have strong feelings about a book, it can go both ways — those that inspire love also inspire hate. But as a writer, I fear the middle ground, the lukewarm. I'm fine with the risk incurred by picking up a book that might go either way, because both ends are passionate — and as with most great journeys, worth the risk.

Take, for example, three books I recommend to everyone. (They'd be filtered as "Just Trust Me.")

Scott Hawkins's ambitious and perplexing debut, The Library at Mount Char, sits somewhere on the border of thriller and speculative fiction, morbid and action-packed and existential and utterly resistant to categorization.

Hope Jahren's Lab Girl is a memoir I might have never picked up if so many people hadn't recommended it. An in-depth look at focus, mental health and identity, wrapped up in a series of natural science essays, and one of the most impactful books I've read.

More recently, I fell for All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai, a time-traveling, mind-bending, neurotic romp centered on the idea that the world we're living in is the result of one young man's monumental f--- up.

Where do these books belong?

No matter where you shelve them, you're right. And wrong. Such a broad spectrum of stories can go beneath the sturdy umbrellas of Fiction, SF/F, Non-Fiction, Romance, and it's not that I'm longing for more specificity, exactly — there's a danger to that, too, for the more we categorize, the less we're likely to discover. But I can't help thinking that we are focusing on the wrong kinds of categories, that in feeding everything through the filter of broad genre, we neglect the opportunity to discover things tangential, adjacent, lingering in the liminal space.

I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a community dedicated to books, filled with those ready to recommend, to press a work into my hands and say, "Trust me." But even I find myself constantly wishing for doors with different labels, twisting rooms with strange and varied shelving. We live in an age of metadata, of SEO, of algorithm. We should be able to think beyond the same old labels.

I remain in constant pursuit of the odd and the indefinable.

And I suspect I'm not alone.

Victoria Schwab's most recent book is Our Dark Duet. She's on Twitter: @veschwab

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Victoria Schwab