On the Inner Workings of Book Recommendations


My housemate just sent me a link to a fascinating web site called The Book Seer. The site asks you to enter the last book you read, and then it compiles book recommendations from Amazon, BookArmy, and LibraryThing.

What was interesting wasn’t the recommendations, per se, but rather what the recommendations said about each of those web sites and how I reacted to what I saw.

I answered honestly. The book I’m reading, though I haven’t finished it, is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, a really excellent novel about a family whose father engineers his kids to be “freaks” for their traveling carnival.

Amazon recommended “weird” books that had been turned into a mainstream movie and whose authors live in mansions, no matter, really, the relevance. They suggested books like Interview with a Vampire and The Shining. While these aren’t necessarily bad books, they seem to be doing fine on their own, and they might not need recommendations from Amazon. Not surprisingly, Amazon seemed intent on making the rich authors — and thus themselves — richer. Their recommendations also seemed to have nothing to do with Geek Love. I ignored them.

BookArmy recommended a bunch of really awesome looking books I’ve never heard of, as well as Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel and some work by Ian McEwan. They seemed to want to introduce me to as many new authors as possible, but I lost interest because I didn’t know most of the books they listed, so I didn’t know if I could trust them. This may make me lazy. It also probably makes me like most people who use The Book Seer.

LibraryThing was just right. From that one book, LibraryThing somehow knew to list many of my favorite books, some of which had been turned into movies, but all of which were more appealing to me than Amazon’s choices. It suggested A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Bastard out of Carolina, Middlesex, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and House of Leaves. Yes, these are the more mainstream of my favorite books, but I instantly trusted their list because the list made me think that it somehow “gets” why I liked Geek Love in a way I’m not sure I can explain. And the fact that they somehow knew why I liked Geek Love made me even more inclined to check out the books that I hadn’t yet read, like Cruddy by Lynda Barry, an illustrated novel that’s often compared to Bastard out of Carolina.

That’s how these things should work, I think.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →