The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Tale of Genji

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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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7 comments to On Bookish, Finding Great Books, Outwitting Amazon, Etc

  • 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.

    • admin

      Nick:

      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.

  • elle

    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.

  • Steve

    Elle, you are an idiot.

  • Neil Griffin

    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.

  • [...] case,… »Who Is Elizabeth Gilbert?That is my full commentary on this…. »On Bookish, Finding Great Books, Outwitting Amazon, EtcI don't really know a whole lot about serendipitous online discovery or whatever the buzzword is for [...]

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