I was reading an article in NewScientist the other day about a system devised by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, which “could form the basis of a recommendation system that makes suggestions based solely on an automatic assessment of the text.” Unlike Amazon’s recommendations, which look at sales, and those on sites like Goodreads, which look at reader reviews and ratings, this one looks at writing style, e.g. the frequency of individual words.
Well, I’m sceptical. You see, the very last thing I want to do after reading a book I enjoyed is to read another book that sounds very similar. I very much enjoyed a book called Chasing the King of Hearts, set among Polish Jews in the Holocaust. Does that mean I want to read another book on the same subject, or in the same style? Nope.
I want my new read to cross oceans, both literally and stylistically. I want it to be totally different, refreshing. In fact, it was. After Chasing the King of Hearts, I read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, written in the voice of a Zimbabwean child. Then I read the Russian novel Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, and then The Spinning Heart by the Irish author Donal Ryan. All the while, I was listening to the darkly funny American novel May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes on audio.
I don’t think any machine in the world would have recommended that sequence of books. There’s nothing to link them in terms of style, subject, word frequency or anything else. The only thing that links them is that they are well written, and if the Royal Holloway researchers have invented a system that can measure literary quality then they deserve the Nobel Prize.
I don’t think I’m particularly eclectic in my reading. I think if you look at your own recent reading, it’ll be very hard to detect a pattern that a computer could understand. Some people, of course, do only read a particular type of book again and again, and for them it may be useful. The article also suggests other uses, like maintaining consistency among different authors in collaborative projects, or resolving disputes over who wrote what.
When it comes to truly insightful recommendations, though, I still haven’t found anything better than the brain of a well-read human being who knows my reading tastes. So thank you, fellow bloggers, as well as all the librarians, bookshop staff and friends over the years who’ve pointed me in the direction of good books to read. One day, a machine may take your place, but for now I depend on you. So please keep reading, keep reviewing, keep talking about the books you like. It’s the only defence we have against the insanity of automated recommendations.