10 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As written about in today’s New York Times GoodReads (which has come a bit of an obsession of mine) has just launched a new site called DiscoverReads that uses an algorithm to recommend books. (Book recommendations and how people choose what to read is another obsession of mine, so this announcement is like a double whammy of awesome.)

From the Times:

On Thursday, Goodreads will announce that it has acquired another start-up, Discovereads.com. It uses machine learning algorithms to analyze which books people might like, based on books they’ve liked in the past and books that people with similar tastes have liked.

Otis Chandler, Goodreads’s founder and chief executive, says the site has been an online version of walking into a friend’s living room and scanning the bookshelves to get recommendations. But readers need more than that, he said, particularly now that libraries, bookstores and some newspapers’ book review sections are disappearing and e-bookstores are inspiring more self-published authors.

“This will give the casual reader a quick answer to ‘What should I read first?’” he said. Once people have rated 10 books on a scale of five stars, Goodreads will be able to suggest books they might like.

All I want to do is try this out, but fucking hell, the site “isn’t accepting new members at this time.” OK, screw it: back to watching the Big East Tournament. Thanks for nothing GoodReads + NY Times. Teases!

But while it’s a commercial break I’m here, this does remind me of Quim Monzo’s short story “Books,” which is included in our forthcoming collection Guadalajara. (Which, if you want to buy it—and you should! it’s brilliant—you’ll have to do it at an indie bookstore or online, since B&N isn’t going to be stocking it . . . No, not bitter at all about yesterday’s sales call at B&N. Not a bit.)

Anyway, you can read the entirely of “Books” in PDF format by clicking here, and here’s a longish excerpt from the beginning of the story (translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush):

There are four books on the passionate reader’s table. All waiting to be read. He went to the bookshop this afternoon, and after spending an hour around the new releases tables and reviewing the covers of his favorite authors on the shelves, he chose four. One is a book of short stories by a French writer; he really enjoyed a novel of his years ago. He didn’t like the second novel he published that much (in fact, didn’t like it all) and has now bought this book of stories in the hope of re-discovering what had fired his imagination so many years ago. The second book is a novel by a Dutch writer whose two preceding novels he had tried to read, but with little success, because he’d had to put both of them down after a few lines. Strangely, this didn’t lead him to abandon the idea of a fresh attempt. Strangely, because usually, when he can’t stand twenty lines of the first book by a particular writer, he might try the second but never the third, unless the critics he trusts have singled it out for special praise, or a friend has recommended it particularly enthusiastically. But this wasn’t the case now. Why did he decide to give him another try? Perhaps it’s the beginning. The beginning that goes: “The bellhop rushed in shouting: “Mr. Kington! Mr. Kington, please!” Mr. Kington was reading the newspaper in the lobby of the Ambassade Hotel and was about to raise his hand when he realized that nobody, but nobody, knew he was there. He didn’t even look up when the bellhop walked by. It would be the most intelligent decision he had ever taken.”

The third book is also a novel, the first novel by an American author he has never heard of. He bought it because in spite of the initial quotation (“Oh, how the tiles glinted in the blossoming dawn, when the roosters’ cry broke the silence with the sound . . .”) he had leafed through it and felt drawn in. The fourth book is a book of short stories, also by a Dutch writer, one who had been unpublished to that point. What attracted him to that book? If he were to be sincere, it was the rich abundance of initials: there are three (A., F., Th.) before the three words that make up the surname. A total of six words: three for the surname and three for the forename. What’s more, the first word of the surname is “van.” He simply adores surnames that begin with “van.”

Why, out of the four books that the passionate reader has on his table, are two (50% exactly) Dutch? Because the Book Fair held in the city was this year devoted to Dutch literature, and that meant, on the one hand, that publishers have brought out more writers in that language recently and, on the other, that the main bookshops in the city have created special displays, piling tables up with these new books as well as books by Dutch and Flemish authors that had been published years ago, that are no longer new and were gathering dust in the distributors’ warehouses.

The passionate reader has all four books in front of him and can’t think where to begin. The stories by the French writer whose novel he liked several years ago? The novel by the young American about whom he knows nothing? That way, if (as is very likely) he finds it immediately disappointing, he will have eliminated one of the four at a stroke and will only have to choose from among the other three. Obviously the same may happen with the novel by the Dutch writer whom he has had to put down on two previous occasions, after merely one page. The reader opens the second book and leafs through. He opens the third and does exactly the same. And follows suit with the fourth. He could choose on the basis of the typeface or kind of paper . . . He tries to find another aspect of the books that could decide for him (an isolated sentence, a character’s name). Page layout. Or paragraphing, for example. He knows that many writers struggle to create frequent paragraphs, whether the text calls for it or not, because they think that when the reader sees the page isn’t too dense, he will feel better disposed toward the book. The same goes for dialogue. A serrated text, with lots of dialogue, is (according to current norms) a plus for most people. This may generally be the case, but has the opposite effect on this reader: he finds an abundance of new paragraphs irritating. He is prejudiced against, and mirrors the prejudice felt by lovers of abundant paragraphs, who find a lack of paragraphs extremely monotonous or arrogant.

Where should he begin? The solution might be to begin them all at once, as he often does. Not simultaneously, of course: but going from one to another, just as you never watch six TV channels at the same time but flick from one to another.

....
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