Are humans or computers better at recommending books?
I decided to find out for myself by pitting the Jackson County Library Services Readers Advisory Team of librarians against two automated book recommendation websites, Goodreads and NoveList.
Launched a year ago and modeled after a similar program in Seattle, the local Readers Advisory Team is made up of a dozen librarians from different branches in the county. Readers go online, fill out a short form about their likes and dislikes, then they get a response within a week listing five book recommendations.
"Book matchmaking is what I call it. We're matching people with books," said team member Angie Stephens, who also runs a library program that gets books into the hands of homebound patrons.
The Readers Advisory Team form, Goodreads and NoveList can all be accessed online at http://jcls.org/whattoreadnext.
The Goodreads website has readers rank books they've read with one to five stars, then churns out five recommendations in various categories such as classics, contemporary fiction or crime.
NoveList takes a different approach. Patrons can browse recommended reading lists, genres or read-alike lists of books that combine elements of other books. For a more personalized approach, they can mix-and-match different attributes, such as writing style, type of character and story line.
So who — or what — came out on top in the competition?
Although it's admittedly subjective, I give top honors to the Readers Advisory Team, followed by Goodreads, with NoveList finishing last.
The Readers Advisory Team form allows readers to check off the literary themes and genres they like, but also includes an open-ended question asking readers to describe writers they've like and not liked, plus what they're in the mood to read next.
I wrote that I like books that feature coming-of-age stories with strong writing, epic journeys or survival situations, then listed a number of my favorite books, including "Lord of the Flies," "The Good Earth," "The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian" and "Cold Mountain."
Holly Hertel, who founded the JCLS Readers Advisory Team, and Stephens look over the forms when they first come in, then send them off to librarians whose interests most closely match the readers' preferences.
Hertel, a reference librarian at the Medford branch, said she started the program because not enough people were approaching librarians for book recommendations, and if they did, that librarian might not be the best match.
"Everybody is such an interesting, and sometimes confusing, mix of likes and dislikes," Hertel said.
My form went to Jody Fleming, manager of the Phoenix library branch.
Fleming said sometimes she can think of book recommendations instantly based on a person's form, and sometimes she does research to find the best picks.
"It's fun. I really enjoy doing it," she said.
For me, Fleming offered the following recommendations:
- "Sold," by Patricia McCormick, is a young-adult novel about a Nepalese girl sold into the sex trade of India. Moments of hope keep this girl alive.
- "Dog Stars" by Peter Heller is a tale of a post-apocalyptic world experienced by a pilot who yearns to find out what the world has become beyond the limited mountains he inhabits.
- Terry McMillan's "The Interruption of Everything" is a funny, heartbreaking novel of a middle-aged woman whose world turns upside down when she begins to keep the promises she makes to herself, rather than serving the needs of everyone around her.
- "The Fireman," by Joe Hill, is another post-apocalyptic novel in which a group of survivors with an apparently deadly disease discover what powers they really have.
- Doris Lessing writes a haunting tale of family in "The Fifth Child," in which a mother must choose between her family's happiness and her unusual "fifth child."
All her recommendations sounded interesting to me and like an almost eerily good match. I had only read one before, "The Fifth Child," and count Lessing among my favorite authors.
As for Goodreads, it generated 25 book recommendations in assorted categories. Five books repeated in several of the categories.
- "The Land" by Mildred D. Taylor follows an interracial boy as he grows into manhood and attempts to own land of his own.
- "Strong Poison" by Dorothy Sayers is about a mystery author who is accused of poisoning her former lover.
- Rex Stout's "Fer-de-Lance" tells of a detective investigating a missing-person case that has ties to a murder.
- "Crocodile on the Sandbank" by Elizabeth Peters features a traveling heiress who solves mysteries on a trip to Egypt.
- "A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael" includes three stories about a medieval detective.
Although I like Agatha Christie, the list from Goodreads seemed overly weighted toward historical mysteries.
One book that popped up only once in the Goodreads recommendations seemed the most intriguing — "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain," Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese.
Although Goodreads' automated selections were hit-and-miss with me, the site does allow you to add books to a "Want to Read" list as you scroll through. After I gave Charles Frazier's Civil War-era novel "Cold Mountain" five stars, Goodreads suggested E.L. Doctorow's "The March," a novel about Union soldiers on the march, accumulating freed slaves and white refugees as they continue on their dangerous, nomadic path.
A good way to find new books is to look at Goodreads picks for its 2017 Tournament of Books competition. Novels in the running include Blake Crouch's science-fiction novel "Dark Matter" about a man separated from his family, and Emma Cline's "The Girls" about a young teen in the 1960s who joins a Charles Manson-type cult.
As for NoveList, its "Make Your Own Appeal Mix" feature has some bugs. I put in character-driven story line, journalistic writing style and disturbing tone, thinking something like Truman Capote's true-crime classic "In Cold Blood" and related books would pop up. Instead I got a message that there were no results matching that mix.
Changing slightly to character-driven story line, lyrical writing style and disturbing tone yielded 116 results, including novels by Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Henry Miller. Since I generally like Atwood and McCarthy, I'll likely give Faulkner and Miller a try.
Putting in character-driven story line, richly detailed writing style and strong sense of place yielded 296 results, from "Cold Mountain" to mass market historical romances.
Another way to search is to go to the genres section, then pick a category, such as "Fiction A-Z." That yields interesting categories, including international, literary or mainstream fiction.
Recommended books in the literary fiction category include Daniel Galera's "The Shape of Bones," about a volatile pack of boys growing up in Brazil, and Jarett Kobek's "The Future Won't be Long," a tale of an aspiring writer and a young artist living in Manhattan's East Village when it was the epicenter of the arts scene.
For people who want to test out the Readers Advisory Team, Stephens said there's no limit on the number of times patrons can ask for recommendations. The librarians said they would also like to hear feedback about whether their book picks resonate with readers.
"The human element is so cool," Stephens said. "Why ask a librarian about books? Because that's what we think about all the time."