How should we handle questions that take the form of "Can you recommend books about topic X?" Are they considered to be poll/list questions and therefore inappropriate here?

Example: https://christianity.stackexchange.com/q/801/30

Are these considered polls or lists. Do the fall into the bad subjective category? Is there a way to ask them that would be considered on-topic and valuable?

Where to we draw the line? See also: https://christianity.meta.stackexchange.com/q/192/30

  • @Flimzy: Can you post that as an answer so we can use voting to get a feel for whether people support the idea? Also if you could provide links not just to sample questions but to any references on meta sites about whether they are encouraged or just tolerated would be lovely.
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 22:01
  • Good idea... Although in researching my question, I think I've come around to believing we should allow book recommendations. :)
    – Flimzy
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 22:15

3 Answers 3


Actually these are a combination of two types of questions that are generally discouraged.

These are shopping questions and list questions. Shopping questions are questions that ask for a specific product recommendation. Generally these are discouraged because they become outdated rather quickly (this is less true on a site like this where the technology/knowledge base does not change quickly. However it is a reason to take great care in what questions you ask and to give good reasons why it won't be outdated in 10 minutes.

List questions are generally discouraged because typically each answer is equally valid and no one can post an exhaustive answer.

It would behoove us to continue to discourage these questions unless they are incredibly narrow or obscure.

  • I'm curious why this answer has so many upvotes, and mine has so many down votes. I don't personally have a strong opinion about book recommendation questions, but I haven't yet heard anyone address the issue of why Christianity.SE should have a different set of rules than the other sites, on this topic. There may well be a good reason... but what is it?
    – Flimzy
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 23:02
  • 3
    @Flimzy: Your answer was heavily down-voted because it is poor advice, citing questions that most would generally consider scraping the bottom of the barrel, content-wise. Your advice seems to embrace these questions because the examples you cited escaped remediation. Bad questions sometimes squeak by on sites, but that's no reason to say "well, then we have to do it, too." Wax eagle would rather discourage this content, which I have to agree with. Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 2:57
  • @Robert Cartaino: My experience (not necessarily any sort of policy), particularly on SO, has been that book recommendations don't just "squeak by", but are treated with the same respect as any other question. Specifically, I see book requests being closed as "duplicates" rather than "off topic." I'm not suggesting this is good form, I'm only reporting what I have observed. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I've often wished they were off topic, as IMO Q&A is not a good format for book reviews. Amazon reviews is a much better place for this.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 5:49

It's tempting to see book recommendation questions open elsewhere on the site and say we should allow them here, but that way lies madness.

Questions don't automatically get closed: people who can close have to be made aware of them. Every site has questions that slip through the cracks, and just because you can find examples of questions that haven't been closed doesn't mean they're on-topic.

And that is just generally a good thing to keep in mind when it comes to other questions about whether something is off-topic: there are always going to be questions that prove or disprove the point.

There are a couple of good blog posts about the general guidance related to list and recommendation questions:

The takeaway from these posts is that questions need to teach someone something, not catalog opinions about something. So like many issues that are bound to come up, it's more nuanced than just banning or allowing all recommendation questions or list questions:

  • Before asking a question, we should consider not using "Recommend me a book about X", which isn't a very constructive question, and asking "What should I be focusing on when I'm learning about X?" or "How do I go about selecting resources for learning about X?"

  • Once the answers start coming in, do the answers actually provide useful information about why the recommendation is sound (ideally, a few paragraphs)? It's probably a good question that could be edited to make sure it doesn't become a honeypot for future bad answers.

  • Or are the answers merely a list of one line recommendations with no rationale for why one should look at it? Close the question as not constructive and start over, providing better guidance about what types of answers we're looking for here.

We should also take some cues from other sites on the network, and learning from their extended discussions about recommendation questions:

  • Recommendations mentioned in all these categories will fall in to promotion of a product/company etc.. But by and large a recommendation question in this site will not fall under them. How do you think book recommendations would fall in same category of a product recommendation. If an SE site is about a product (eg: ubuntu/askubuntu.com, then promoting ubuntu there would be appropriate), but if it is about OS and if some one promotes Ubuntu there as superior, then it would not be appropriate. Am I missing something here?
    – Jamess
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 8:24
  • @Jamess Whether or not a recommendation question is about a "product" or some other type of object is largely irrelevant: the issue is that recommendation questions, while nice in theory, almost always turn into soft questions that attract crappy answers with no meat in them like moths to the flame. It's easy to give an opinion or a preference: it's much harder—but far more valuable—to provide an answer to an actual problem.
    – user72
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 8:40
  • I believe it is other way round. If it is used correctly, it will turn an SE site to draw from the wisdom of past 20 centuries. We live in a small time period and spend a fraction of that time to visit this site. So a search/answer here should lead to something bigger which draws from that wisdom. SE sites work democratically, when you vote up/down and discussion happens, others can seperate wheat from chaff.
    – Jamess
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 8:46
  • @Jamess Like I said, they're nice in theory, but through the experience of 45+ Stack Exchange sites wrestling with various forms of the recommendation question, it's been found that they are almost always terrible in practice.
    – user72
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 9:16

Most of the programming SE sites allow questions asking for "book or resource" recommendations. Examples from a number of SE sites:

Unless we can demonstrate how book recommendations are somehow fundamentally different on this site than the others (especially Judaism), I don't see how we can justify not allowing them here.

  • 3
    I originally wanted to write a comment as to why this is problematic, but it wound up being way too long and left it as an answer. In short, every site has questions that are off-topic but haven't been closed, so we can't base policy on whether or not we can find open questions elsewhere on the network.
    – user72
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 23:18
  • @Mark Trapp: Thanks, I think your answer sounds solid.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 23:20
  • those questions seem to be split between closed and open
    – warren
    Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 15:26

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