Dispatches | March 16, 2011
The Algorithm Inside
Last Friday, on the New Yorker‘s excellent daily blog, The Book Bench, there was a brief post on Goodreads acquiring Discovereads, “a site that uses an algorithm to recommend books to people based on their preferences and on the preferences of users with similar tastes.” It sounds like a more mathematical version of Goodreads, a better “system” for selecting books. More from the New Yorker on this:
What I like about it is the updates I get telling me what my buddies are reading. The recommendations (and the ads) don’t matter so much to me, but if they are going to be there, I would like them to be the result of the best algorithmic cocktail known to mankind.
It all got me thinking about how book and movie recommendations work in the offline world. I have one buddy whose taste in movies I trust completely, because in twelve years of friendship he has never once failed me; and I have one buddy whose taste in books I trust completely, for a similar reason. Whatever algorithm God put inside these two people is the right algorithm for me … I wonder … about my dimwitted Netflix buddy and the new-and-improved Goodreads buddy I’m about to meet: Will they one day grow so good at reading my mind that they’ll be interchangeable with my real-life friends?
This is probably supposed to be funny, but this makes me feel a little cold. Ratings and lists are everywhere now. Overrated. Underrated. Top ten. Top five. Etc. Driven by the need for revenue, websites have gotten very good at trying to determine our preferences and giving us ads that we want. This is good: you get information relevant to you, the advertiser gets the audience it wants, costs are more efficient, we’re all happy. And we all get to participate. This is good. I guess.
Over on Ploughshares, the poets Weston Cutter and Bob Hicok (who we love!) discussed the word “random” and its use, often poorly, in workshops and the classroom. Cutter quotes cultural critic (and hoops fan) Chuck Klosterman:
People are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention but because they feel as if they deserve to be asked.
Which is sorta how I’m feeling about this rating system game that Amazon, Huffington Post, Facebook, ESPN, and every other company (frankly, some conversations with real live people, too) under the sun has decided to play. I’m not sure I really want my book choices, or others, fully automated, an algorithm. Even tongue in cheek, I don’t like thinking of my friend’s as a math formula (aren’t we all water? neurons? souls? I have no idea). Sure, it’s nice to have recommendations for a book. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read and loved a book that Amazon or Powell’s or whatever recommended to me because of my buying history. The books I love are not products. The recommendations of friends matter to me, at least in part, because they can be wrong. They can be intimate, vulnerable, widely off the mark. And that’s why it means so much.
Step back: it’s rare, but sometimes, a person I don’t know well has asked to read my work. This someone, whoever it is, cares enough to want to experience what I do and take my writing seriously. Phrases like “I write literary realism” or “I’m like Richard Yates, only I don’t make you want to kill yourself” don’t really do justice to my fiction. The best way to know what my stories are about is to, well, read my stories. Sure, I want readers. Who doesn’t? But the anonymous reader is not the same as a person, probably a new acquaintance or friend, who I know on some personal level, asking to read my work. That’s a different connection and it is, in many ways, one of the most important things someone can ask of me.
Recommending a book to a friend is not, to me, a small gesture. It probably isn’t a small gesture to passionate readers either. Passing a book I love is one more thing in this world I don’t want to “outsource” to a company. I’d rather have someone showing me why he/she loves a book to mean something. Really mean something.
Two friends have recently been kind enough to mail me books. It wasn’t so much the books that matter – though both were terrific – but that the books came from friends. These were small gifts, unsolicited, unexpected, and totally loved.
One of the books was South of the Big Four, the first novel by Don Kurtz. I was delighted to received a hardcover book, the dust jacket laminated; for a wonderful moment, I hoped my friend had actually stolen this from a library in some sort of maniac desire to share. Kurtz writes with a prose style that reminded me of William Maxwell, and even had the same qualities of isolation and buried loss. The narrator, Arthur, has returned home to live on his deceased father’s old farm, and begins to work for this new businessman/farmer, Gerry Maars. It’s a patient, moving, skillful novel of the farming community in the modern world. But it has extra meaning to me because of who it came from, and that it came with a handwritten letter tucked into the pages.
The other book is a chapbook published by Catenary Press: “Houses” by Elizabeth Benjamin. It’s a series of short stories that are loosely linked as images of people and place in various stages of movement and waiting, images that became clearer and stronger the more I reread it. One of my favorites followed a man walking through the woods, and stumbling into a hunter, who warns him to be more careful. After the hunter leaves him, the man follows by stepping in her footprints. And these stories, even with all their movement, have a strong sense of physical possession. I’d never have heard of it Benjamin without my friend mailing me the book, and this mailing too had a small personal note inside.
The letter/inscription combined with the slightly battered text that was read slowly, maybe even with some margin scrawls, pages stained by wine or coffee, rounded corners, cracked spines, all of which gets sent to me as something much greater than its individual parts: there’s no algorithm in this. Instead, there is something else, not so much a recommendation but a gift. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review
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