Since I work in Hollywood, I have plenty of smart, articulate, interesting friends who... haven’t read a book in years. For the most part, it’s because their love of television and film is that deep. These are the kinds of people who can name all manner of obscure films from the 1970s, yet do nothing more than stare blankly when you make a comment about a seemingly ubiquitous Maggie Shipstead title.
All snobbery aside, these are good people to have around — they’re great for identifying non-insipid films and shows for me to watch and in return, on those rare occasions when they are sick, have long bus trips ahead, or are feeling overwhelmed by all the drama on Real Housewives, I get to deliver user-friendly book recommendations.
The secret that non-readers generally don’t know is that books, though they often take more mental energy to consume, can be just as satisfying and ultimately entertaining as movies and TV shows. The trick is to make sure you're tailoring your recommendations appropriately — even huge crowdpleasers can fall on deaf ears if those ears are already resistant to the idea of reading. Still, getting the chance to convert a non-reader is always exciting, so I’ve spent years honing my list of books that even people who don’t like reading will enjoy.
This is my list of favorite recommends for non-readers, paired with the type of person I generally recommend them to. Now go forth and inspire your friends to read (at least while they’re in that weird foreign train station without Internet or cell service and need something to pass the time)!
For the Feminist
Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
There are certain frustrations to being a woman that are universal, and one of them was finally given a name in response to Rebecca Solnit’s titular essay “Men Explain Things To Me.” Mansplaining: we’ve all been a victim of it, and there’s something deeply satisfying about watching Solnit dismantle this subtle social ill and discuss why and how it persists even as women advance through the workforce. This satisfaction doesn’t diminish if you don’t love the written word in general — when something speaks to you because it is basically about you, it’s impossible to put down. Men Explain Things To Me is a compact little book, but it makes a lot of big points that your female friends will identify with.
For the Sitcom Queen
I Just Want My Pants Back by David Rosen
This book is a perfect reading entry point because no person has ever picked it up then put it down again half-finished. I’d argue that it’s scientifically impossible to do so. It’s not a Franzen-style commentary on the human condition, nor is it a Twilight-style brain vacation. It’s something in between — about as mentally taxing as watching television, but funny, well-written, and immersing enough to be fully considered a reading experience. Though especially great for twenty- and thirtysomethings who feel a little bit lost career-wise, it’ll be a hit with anybody who enjoys laughing.
For the Gossip-Lover
Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Game Change was adapted into an HBO film focusing mostly on the mystery of how Sarah Palin wound up on the GOP ticket, but the book is so much more expansive and salacious than all that. From Hillary’s disaster campaign to Obama’s slow transition to frontrunner to McCain’s old-man fumbling, this engaging tome has soooooo much fascinating dirt on all the 2008 presidential candidates. Like with real world gossip, it’s possible that not everything in this book and its sister report on the 2012 campaign is entirely accurate. Even with that in mind, however, anybody who enjoys listening to and passing on the dirt will be left with hundreds of stories to share. It lacks the glossy sheen of a Kardashian tell-all, but it’s just as tragic and absurd as any In Touch magazine expose and way, way juicer.
For the Romantic
Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen
Do you ever dream of running away with the circus? I hope the answer is yes, but even if it isn’t, Water For Elephants will show you and your non-reading friends the error of your ways. Part romance, part adventure, part historical fiction, this book gives you the same warm and fuzzies as stuff like The Notebook , but it does so while absorbing you into a fascinating world of sideshow characters, animal trainers, and acrobats. Approachably written and peppered with lovable, inspiring characters, it’s an absorbing read that will help your friends escape their humdrum lives.
For the New York City Townies
The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Auster’s books are offbeat to be sure, but he’s part of a school of modern New York novelists that capture the energy and eccentricity of the city perfectly. While his novels are most certainly “real” literature dealing with complicated and sometimes confusing concepts, what makes him special is his spare, straightforward writing style. It’s surprisingly easy to lose yourself in his grounded-but-bizarre worlds without noticing how much of the story you’re getting through. This goes double if you’re a New York-o-phile.
For the Intellectual in Denial
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
We all have a friend whose taste in television and film runs patently lowbrow but periodically pipes in with insightful, intelligent commentary about life, Blair Waldorf, or the state of American youth culture that totally blows everybody’s minds. This friend may consider themselves too conventional and/or frivolous for serious dramatic fare, but would probably secretly enjoy it. Prep , then, is the perfect foil for such a person — it’s a serious drama that has all the hallmarks of less serious fare with none of the frustrating clichés. Sittenfeld’s work is so precise and articulate when it comes to describing the emotional dramas of boarding school that this teen-focused story in no way deserves the dismissive moniker “chick-lit” — but also is somehow also satisfying if that’s what you're looking for.
For the Hipster in Denial
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
Depending on whom you’re talking to, Chuck Klosterman’s inaugural book of essays is either old news or refreshingly insightful. Your actual hipster friends will be long past pretending to care about this essay collection, but even if it’s passé, something about Klosterman’s perspective and writing is still cool, countercultural, and engaging. Anybody who doesn’t currently believe they are too cool to read this book will get the joy of reading it for the first time without the hipster baggage, and that’s a real gift.
For the Cool, Moody Friend
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel may be famous among film buffs for inventing a simple test that highlights gender bias in film and television, but she’s was originally known for a long-running comic: “Dykes to Watch Out For.” That was definitely a niche project focusing on the gay and female experience, but in 2006 she blew up after her “tragicomic” graphic autobiography hit the bestseller list. Perhaps an unexpected transition on paper, but not if you’ve read her book. This totally engrossing graphic novel documents her experience growing in the lead-up to her father’s suicide, expertly weaving in her experiences with depression, coming out, and the general annoyances of being female. It’s relatable, it’s intelligent, and it’s mostly pictures!
For the Daydreamer
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Like Prep , this is a story about teens that not necessary for teens, but thanks to Rowell’s eye for detail and honest character portrayals, it is both immensely approachable and the epitome of sweet. For a friend who is as sweet as this story and as optimistic as its outcome, it’s the perfect blend of impossible-to-put-down and delightful.
For the Ball of Energy
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
For non-readers, opening a book is often its own kind of challenge. Something about our collective school experience has taught us to feel guilty about starting books and not finishing them. Cracking open 300 pages feels like it’s committing you to reading those 300 pages, and if you aren’t positive you have the energy or concentration for that, it’s easier to give up. That, then, is the beauty of the essay collection. You can pick it up and drop it off any time! And laughing is pretty fun, right? Even non-readers like laughing. This is probably why David Sedaris’ multitude of comedic autobiographical essays are so widely consumed — you don’t need to love books to love his voice and enjoy his quirky stories of growing up in one of America’s first families of funny. Most importantly, you don’t need to clear your schedule to get a little Sedaris in — you’re making no lifetime commitment here.
For the Adrenaline Junkie
Lush Life by Richard Price
Listen, I’m sick of people recommending I read Gone Girl , OK? This is possibly because, when it comes to crime and suspense novels, I might as well be a non-reader. I love a totally indulgent, plot-less dramas filled with unnecessary pages about mundane activities, but high-octane suspense just isn’t for me. Of course, on paper Lush Life is everything I hate, but this is a crime novel that even people who don’t love crime novels find themselves unable to put down. Richard Price is the sort of evil genius that can make a bunch of annoying cop characters and their annoying cop investigation interesting and suspenseful and sometimes kind of funny and ultimately totally engaging. My logic is this: if I couldn’t put this down, then neither will your book-less friend. And at the end of the day, we’ll all have read a book.