On Bookish, Finding Great Books, Outwitting Amazon, Etc

I don’t really know a whole lot about serendipitous online discovery or whatever the buzzword is for suddenly coming across a book you love while surfing the Internet, but I do know that, after having blogged about literature for close to 9 years, in that time I’ve never once come even close to feeling like I had 1/50th the amount of time necessary to read all the books I had bought in my adulthood, much less all the books I wanted to read.

I don’t really know what the point of Bookish is supposed to be (it’s supposed to “compete with Amazon,” whatever that means), but I gather that a big part of its strategy is connecting readers with books they didn’t know they wanted (in particular, books published by the major New York publishers that have poured 8 figures worth of money into the site). I’m not sure that the people who build Bookish have any clue about how to compete with Amazon or even what their site is supposed to do, but I have a feeling that they think recommending books to people is the essential piece of the puzzle. This all gets back to how much “searchability” and “discovery” have become fetishized by the marketplace ever since the Internet exploded. It all reminds me a little of the underpants gnomes, how everybody just knows these things are so essential to any coherent business plans these days . . . and then can put together a site like Bookish.

As you’ve probably figured, I find a lot of this eagerness over “searchability” et al. pretty ridiculous, even though I will admit that it can be useful to a business, to a point. But my experiences with discovering books in the analog world tells me a lot about how people are still finding their literature, regardless of how much we’re all online these days. Now obviously I’m in something of a privileged position because there are publishers constantly sending me press releases, books, etc, so I’m better informed about new books than most people trying to find the next thing to read, but I still feel like even if you subtracted away all of that information, I would still be in the habit of buying way more books than I could ever possibly read. So, in other words, I feel like I know a little something about serendipitous discovery of great books.

I don’t use Bookish, Goodreads, Riffle, or whatever else book people out there are hawking as the next great thing. (In fact, being on Bookish’s site for a little while this week made me feel profoundly sad; more on that in a minute.) I read blogs, I’m on Twitter and Facebook a fair amount (although that’s as much about news or banter as it is about discovering books), I have friends that I talk to regularly, I interview people whom I find to be interesting, go to publishers’ tables at shows and ask them what amazing new stuff they have, and I check in with the magazines, journals, etc that I think have interesting things to say. Between all that (plus the aforementioned publishers slinging shit at me), I pretty much own more books right at this second than I could hope to read in probably the next 10 years.

Which is all to say, I think algorithms have pretty well proved their use in recent years, but I don’t think they’re everything that people who love technology so much they want to marry it seem to think they are. A good example is I can spend more time than I’d like to admit running through Netflix recommendations, eventually ending up just viewing something that my buddy told me I should watch a couple months ago. In my experience, algorithms are good for getting you a lot of stuff that you very well could like, but they don’t give you that last little burst needed to get you past the “mmmm, this kinda sounds like my thing” to the “oh shit! I have to watch this RIGHT NOW.” Generalizing from my own experience, one only gets to the latter point where there’s an actual human that you know and trust (whether a friend of yours or a critic that you’ve read for years) to instill a certain amount of excitement in you.

That’s probably why I like to use Facebook and Twitter as an engine of recommendations, as I have a sense of the people behind the recommending. And that’s why I think something like Bookish is poorly conceived, because it feels like a bunch of CEOs and culture mavens trying to sell you the next big thing. Sorry to say it, but you have to be amazingly clueless and pretty well installed in your little bubble to think that the news items up on Bookish are going to make anyone want to buy anything. Chad has a good point when he says that what something like Bookish needs to succeed is a stable of reviewers like Pitchfork that readers can develop quasi-relationships with.

Again, I have no idea who or what Bookish consulted in putting together its site, but in terms of what I’ve discovered works for me and people like me, they seem to have missed the boat entirely. If you merely go visit the site you instantly get a smarmy feel, like you’ve just been surrounded by a bunch of car salesmen. That’s pretty much going to kill whatever sensations of trust and excitement might be building in you at the moment and make anyone with a shred of dignity feel like a moron who just looks like a gigantic flashing dollar sign to whoever put together Bookish. The fact that the people who built Bookish made a site that makes someone like me (i.e. someone who consumes enormous amounts of literature) feel that way . . . umm, I find that kinda amazing.

Anyway, I guess my main point here is that I appreciate what sites like Goodreads are trying to do, but people get too caught up in the technology aspect of book recommendations. I get that publishers want to LEVERAGE THE INTERNET, but a lot of them are going too heavy on the whole Internet thing and forgetting the human aspect. And a lot of them are probably people who have been so far away from anything resembling legitimate book culture for such a long time that someone who cares about books and buys a lot of them must, to their eyes, resemble an alien species. You probably, right this second, have all the tools you need to find numerous incredible books, and I’m sure that many of you are already doing just that. The idea that a bunch of huge conglomerated publishers could try to put together a ridiculously expensive website that does what any reasonably intelligent reader has long ago figure out how to do and completely fuck it up so utterly and awfully tells you a lot about why these institutions are failing in the marketplace.

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This is silly. Of course people who are constantly looking for books and actually interested in reading of their own volition are not the intended targets of a recommendation algorithm. This is going to be for the clueless and the blind. The people who claim to like reading but only finish 4-7 light paperbacks a year. This is for people who have no interest in digging through literary blogs or websites. I’m not sure why this should be any more surprising than the pat yourself on the back system Goodreads has in place.

I agree that I’m tired of the absolute nothing presented for serious readers of serious books, but I’m surprised that anyone would expect anything different.

Then again if your main point is the detachment from other people then you’re right on. But I doubt the clueless readers care too much where the recommendation comes from when they don’t get recs to begin with.


    I know lots of intelligent people who aren’t into books to the degree of reading 50 or so a year (probably more like 10 – 20) and have a hard time finding interesting things to read. These people would probably try an algorithm if it were presented to them on a site they normally visit.

    Plus, I think I and many others would at least try the algorithm if it was presented as something less mechanical.

    My point is that sites like Bookish, Goodreads, etc trade heavily on the notion of technology, when people should have a broader idea of how to discover new books. What bothers me is that this attitude is prevalent in sectors far beyond just literature. I think people should expect different, otherwise they simply enable people like the creators of Bookish to feed them sub-part culture.

      Ah, ok.

      I guess the readers I’ve mostly run into who consult recommendation algorithms are the ones who always seem clueless because they don’t follow any lit. blogs, read articles, don’t pay attention to any of the big mover and shaker publishers, and/or don’t have anyone doing any of those things to talk with.

      Chalk this kind of searching up with the other ironies of the Information Age.

On a lark visit to Poets & Writers, I found Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books. It is a memoir to which all contemporary memoirists should aspire – it looks outward rather than inward.

I decided to give Bookish a whirl after this. I entered in Open City as a book I recently liked and got the following recommendations: Great House by Nicole Krauss, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick, and the Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

It seems the algorithm is great at finding the year a book is published and then recommending 4 books also published in the same year. Very Scientific.

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