“What book are you reading?” is one of those interview questions that seem to come out of left field…but it’s really not uncommon. The secret to answering it well is to understand what the interviewer is looking for. Trust me – she’s not trying to find out if you’d be a good fit for her book club.
What the question really means
Interviewers love to ask, “What book are you reading?” because it usually gets them lots of personal, revealing information without having to ask personal, revealing questions. Here are some of the tidbits recruiters are trying to learn:
- Do you read for pleasure?
Fair or not, most employers would rather hire someone who reads in the evening than someone who plays Call of Duty until 1 a.m. Reading just comes across as more…well, adult. In addition, people who read for pleasure tend to understand written material more quickly. Their writing ability is often above average, as well.
- Do you have good analytical/critical thinking skills?
Recruiters assume that, if you can do a thorough job of explaining what you like and dislike about a certain book, you’ll also be capable of making independent decisions about information you have to evaluate on the job.
- What are your interests?
Are you all work and no play…or vice versa? Are you comfortable talking about what you’re reading, or apologetic and embarrassed? Do you like to read meaty works of fiction, or brain candy? If you’re reading brain candy, why? Is that all you’re capable of understanding, or do you need to give your brain a break after long hours at the office?
- Do you have good social skills?
Most interview questions are clearly interview questions rather than conversations you’d have in a social environment: “Tell me about a time you failed,” for instance. Getting you to talk about a book gives the interviewer a glimpse of your ability to interact socially with co-workers and customers/clients.
How to answer (and which answers to avoid)
The answer to the “What book are you reading?” really starts way before the interview: when you’re actually reading a book. It’s not a good idea to fake this one and just name a popular title. If you can’t discuss it in depth, you’re busted. So if you’re job hunting, use that lead time to read books you’ll be proud to talk about. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- If there’s a book that everyone in your profession is talking about, read it. And no faking – you need to be prepared to discuss the details.
- Stay away from controversial genres. You really don’t want to tell your interviewer about your love for erotica or apocalyptic fiction. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t want to discuss the book with your mom, you shouldn’t discuss it with an interviewer.
- Be ready to discuss one meaty fiction book and one non-fiction book that’s related to your profession. Some companies would like nothing better than to hire someone who focuses on work to the exclusion of everything else. Others would prefer to hire someone who’s more well-rounded. Unless you’re absolutely certain you know the company culture well enough to make a choice, your best bet is to cover your bases.
- When you finish a book, write down two to three of the most important themes. Be ready to discuss them – not only what the themes are, but what you think about them.
When you’re put on the spot
Obviously, in a perfect world, you’d plan your reading to be the basis for the perfect answer in an interview. In real life, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes an opportunity crops up unexpectedly, and sometimes you just get busy. So, if you’re put on the spot during an interview and don’t have an answered already prepared, keep these tips in mind:
- If you haven’t yet read the book everyone in your profession is talking about, spin an answer that highlights your dedication to the job: “I loaded that on my Kindle/phone/iPad, but I’ve been so focused on Project A that I just haven’t gotten to it yet. It’s projected to have XYX affect on our company, so I’ve had to push a lot of other things aside. It’s about to wrap up, though, so I’m looking forward to catching up on my reading.”
- Don’t even consider talking about erotica, but almost any other genre can be spun to put you in a positive light. For instance, if you like apocalyptic fiction and work in logistics, you could give an answer like this: “It really made me think about the unintended consequences of such efficient distribution. Most grocery stores, for instance, carry at most a three-day supply of food, and most families have about that much at home. How can we fulfill our responsibility to supply food if trucks can’t get to stores? Most people are so many steps removed from the food supply that, if the trucks don’t show up, they don’t eat. It’s something the industry really needs to consider.”
Like most things in life, it’s best to plan ahead for this question. Read some important books, and know what you want to say about them. But even if you’re caught off guard, you can still answer the question successfully as long as you understand what the interviewer is trying to find out. Come up with responses that tell the recruiter what she wants to know while portraying yourself in the best possible light, and you’ll do just fine.
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