What to read next: in praise of randomness
Posted by Paul Samael on Sunday, October 25, 2020 Under: Random thoughts
In an increasingly algorithm-driven world, it’s often difficult to find recommendations for your next read that will surprise you - or encourage you to read stuff that you probably wouldn’t have chosen if left entirely to your own devices.
If you are a massive fan of a particular genre, then the “people who liked this also liked this” approach on sites like Goodreads or Amazon is probably fine. But it’s the literary equivalent of only getting your news from Facebook and finding that, because you visited site X, Facebook has concluded that you are only interested in news and views similar to X – and so that is all you get, even though there’s a whole alphabet of news and views out there.
So I started casting around for sites which allow you to inject a degree of randomness into the process – in the expectation that whilst some (possibly many) of the resulting recommendations would not float my boat, this process would at least throw up a greater variety of books. This is what I came up with:
This site provides recommendations in response to various parameters set by you, such as Funny/Serious, Conventional/Unusual, Optimistic/Bleak (you can select up to four, using a sliding scale). So there is clearly an algorithm at work in terms of the selection it serves up. But there is a degree of randomness in terms of which books are presented – for example, you can reset the sliders to exactly the same as the search you just performed, but the best matches appear in a random order, so the selection will often look completely different. This strikes me as a useful equalisation strategy, removing the advantage typically enjoyed by bestsellers or books with the largest number of high ratings on recommendation sites.
The site has a simple, attractive interface and I liked the fact that you can give it a bias in a particular direction. My only slight quibble is that the reviews are sometimes a bit too brief, but there are usually links to Amazon, so you can easily access a wider range of reviews (in that respect, bookbag.co.uk - reviewed below - may be a better bet). See: https://www.whichbook.net/
Bookbag is an extensive site with over 15,000 reviews. One of the options allows you to access one of those reviews at random via this page: http://www.thebookbag.co.uk/reviews/Book_Recommendations
So you just keep on requesting a new random review until you find something that tickles your fancy. You will probably find yourself passing over quite a few books before you find one that interests you - but that’s what I’ve been doing on Whichbook anyway. The difference is that - unlike Whichbook - there’s no way to set any parameters at all for which books are served up and it doesn't have a similarly whizzy interface. On the positive side though, I have generally found that the bookbag reviews give you a good idea whether a book is likely to appeal to you - and in that respect, I prefer it to Whichbook (where the information provided on each book is pretty minimal and I often find myself needing to look up reviews on other platforms before making up my mind).
LibraryThing doesn’t have much in the way of random functionality, but it does provide the names of users who’ve got some of the same books in their collections that you have. If you then browse to one of those users’ profile pages, you will find a random selection of the books in their collection on the right hand side of the page. So to some extent, this is a bit like setting some parameters on Whichbook – it’s just that the parameter in this case is that you are generating random recommendations from the collection of a user who happens to have liked some of the same books that you did. A lot will obviously depend on how electic that user’s tastes are and how far they are in tune with your tastes. See: https://www.librarything.com
Recommend me a book
This site is unusual in that it just gives you the first page or so of a book – no title, no author, no cover and no blurb. The idea is to take out the bias/prejudice that comes with all those things, so it’s like doing a “blind tasting” exercise. You can filter by genre (click on the cogwheel icon at bottom right of the screen), but otherwise, the selection looks to be random. I’m not sure how many books it has in its database – I tried searching for some of the titles in my LibraryThing collection and quite a few of them were missing.
Whilst I was attracted by the idea of the site in principle, I’m not sure how well it works in practice. For me, the title, cover and blurb are all important ways of conveying information about a book. Although I completely accept that they can play to our prejudices (see this post), it is asking a lot of the author to have the reader “hooked” from the very first page. For me, the “hook” will often be more in what the blurb tells you about the book. I would also have preferred a longer sample (but I suspect copyright concerns prevent that). There is an option to scroll through covers and then click on the sample. Whilst that somewhat undermines the random/blind testing aspect of the site, it may provide a better way for some of finding something they want to read. Anyway, it’s an interesting approach and it’s worth a look. See: https://recommendmeabook.com/
In : Random thoughts
Tags: "book recommendation sites"
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