Can a computer ever give good book recommendations?

The latest and most ambitious attempt to turn literary taste into an algorithm

Topics: Readers and Reading, Books,

Can a computer ever give good book recommendations?

Recommending books is an art, replete with mysteries and moments of inexplicable grace. When I wrote about the topic last year, John Warner — sometime “Biblioracle” at the website the Morning News — reminisced happily about the time he “went out on a limb and recommended ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ and the person said it ‘changed my life.’”

The occasional triumph (and perhaps only a fellow recommender will appreciate just how sweet such instances can be) are inevitably balanced out by mortifying failures. Though it was over a decade ago, I’ll never forget the time a friend chewed me out for suggesting she read Louise Erdrich’s “The Beet Queen.” It seemed the perfect choice after I’d ruminated on all the other novels she said she’d liked, but she complained that Erdrich’s women characters were all “victims” who refused to do anything to improve their lot.

Can a task this ineffable be automated? Many seem to think so. For years, Amazon and other e-booksellers have offered their customers suggestions based on the purchases of other customers who bought the same books. But you don’t necessarily read every book you buy from an online retailer (some are gifts) and you probably don’t like every book you read, either. For that matter, the books you like best you may have bought elsewhere, or borrowed from a friend.

The latest and most ambitious attempt to automate book recommendations is the website, launched last week. It’s the public point of interaction with something called the Book Genome Project, an effort to “identify, track, measure, and study the multitude of features that make up a book using computational tools.” BookLamp’s oft-cited model is, a music-discovery service that allows users to create and listen to playlists based on a single song, artist or genre. Founder Aaron Stanton also cites OKTrends, a blog that crunches and analyzes data extracted from the OKCupid dating website, as an inspiration.

Stanton and company (students at the University of Idaho when the project began in 2003 and  academics from several institutions still figure among their researchers and programmers) have fed the text of some 10,000 books into a custom-built software program. The program then identified certain recurring elements and clusters of elements. The designers in turn trained it to recognize those elements and determine how much of each one can be found in a given book.

If this sounds confusing, it is, a bit. On the phone, Stanton explained to me that he and his confederates feel that more traditional labels applied to books — the genre classifications imposed by publishers and the categories of the Library of Congress’ cataloging system — are inadequate. BookLamp can not only provide a precise accounting of such literary qualities as “dialog,” “density,” “description” and “motion,” it can also measure how much of the book involves “Sea Voyages” or “Pregnancy/ Motherhood/ Infant Care” or, for that matter, “Rocky & Dry Terrain/ Canyons.” These metrics are included with 132 other “thematic ingredients” under a broad category the project’s designers call “StoryDNA.”

Such elements “aren’t necessarily what the book’s about, but they’re present,” Stanton told me. He added that although he would never say that Stephen King’s “The Stand” is about “Vehicles/ Rural Travel/ Country Roads,” nevertheless “you couldn’t tell the story of ‘The Stand’ without referring to those things.”

How prevalent such elements are influences a reader’s experience. “A book with 10 percent vampires is a very different book than a book with 80 percent vampires,” Stanton observed. BookLamp searches its database for titles with similar levels. (The idea that a book could be 10 percent or 80 percent vampires was difficult to wrap my mind around until I recalled the way a friend would complain whenever an episode of “Buffy the Vampire” suffered from “not enough vampires.”)

To use a familiar book as an example, Steig Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” comes up in the BookLamp database with high quantities of “Newspaper Reporting/ Journalism” and “Criminal Investigation/ Detective Work.” Very true. But why does it also show significant levels of “Extended Family/ Cousins & Relatives” and the rather cryptic metric “Scheduling/ Elements of Time”?

“We make no claims to rightness,” Stanton said, explaining that BookLamp is very much a work in progress and that one of the project’s first priorities is to build a much larger database of analyzed books. (This will require the assistance of publishers.) “There are times when the system comes back with something I’d never thought it was capable of” — such as identifying the works of Stephen King as being very similar to the works of Richard Bachman, a King pseudonym — “and then there are times when I’m looking at it and thinking this suggestion doesn’t make much sense.”

Why not rely on the far more sophisticated if also unfathomable judgment of actual human beings, the same intuitive power that enabled John Warner to change a stranger’s life by suggesting “Gravity’s Rainbow”? Even the mechanized, crowd-sourced versions of such recommendations — whether provided by Amazon or such social networking sites as GoodReads and LibraryThing — have aided readers.

But, as Stanton points out, social networks can only tell you about books that other readers themselves already know about and have taken the trouble to read and review. They’re heavily weighted toward books that are well-known and successful, as well as toward more recent titles. “Right now,” Stanton says, “the world is not good at finding midlist or old books or books by first-time authors — a huge portion of the pyramid of books out there.” The Book Genome Project doesn’t care about a book’s critical reputation or sales history; all it wants to do is tally up exactly how much “Docks & Warehouses” or “Explicit Descriptions of Physical Intimacy” can be found between its covers. (Or both — paging Edmund White!)

While some of the recommendations I elicited from BookLamp made sense (people who like Dickens do tend to like Wilkie Collins, too), others left me perplexed. Plugging in one of my favorite titles from last year, Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” — a satire set in New York City in the near future about the doomed affair between a middle-aged Russian immigrant and a much-younger Korean-American woman and ranking high in “Partying/ Deviance” (Shteyngart would be so proud!) — I got back Robert Silverberg’s “The Book of Skulls” — apparently a thriller about four college buddies seeking an immortality-conferring tome guarded by a “mystical brotherhood” in the Arizona desert. Huh? (To be fair, Lara Vapnyar’s “Memoirs of a Muse,” just a little further down the list, is a perfect fit.)

Mostly, though, I appreciate how BookLamp persuades me to look at the books I like in a different light. Ask me why I love Haruki Murakami’s fiction, and I probably wouldn’t begin by praising his depictions of “Suburban Living/ Neighborhoods,” but come to think of it, that’s one of the aspects of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” I remember most vividly and with particular pleasure. I don’t recall an abundance of “Fashion/ Clothing/ Accessories” in the same book, but the next time I reread it, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled.

Further reading:

The fine art of recommending books by Laura Miller

Salon’s review of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story”

Salon’s review of Haruki Murakami’s “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>