Recommended Recommenders

A recent blog post on the Boston Globe site highlights seven “book recommendation websites” people can turn to for reading suggestions. I was already familiar with four of the seven, but decided to explore the rest for comparison’s sake. If I’ve made a mistake, feel free to correct me in the comments; conversely, if you are a devoted member of one of these sites and want to sing its praises, please feel free to do that as well!

This is a site I use every day; I’ve been a member since 2007, and have over a thousand books on my “shelves.” Goodreads offers a great way to keep track of what you’ve read (including when you read it, what you thought about it, your rating – out of five stars – and who recommended it to you), what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your to-read list for the future. You can create more shelves in addition to these three – historical fiction, for example, or biography – and you can see what your friends have read. Goodreads will recommend books for you based on your shelves, and you can see others’ lists, take quizzes, and sign up for giveaways. There are also many “Goodreads authors,” published authors who participate as members. One of my favorite features of the site is that it combines personal recommendations with crowd-sourced ones, so I can see what my friends thought of a book as well as what everyone else of Goodreads thought of it. Great usability, too – the interface is pleasant and intuitive, you can sort your lists by author, title, date read, date added, rating, etc., and you can get some nice descriptive statistics too.

LT is similar to Goodreads in many ways: you can create your own shelves and tags, see your friends’ books, create a profile, get recommendations, and participate in giveaways. LT offers richer metadata, including Dewey Decimal Classification and Library of Congress Classification (DDC and LCC). The interface isn’t quite as user-friendly, but it’s a robust site, and if Goodreads didn’t exist, I’d happily use LT as my primary books-and-reading website.

Shelfari is powered by Amazon, which means two things: (1) it is designed to get you to buy books, preferably from Amazon, and (2) the design is beautiful and the user experience (UX) is fantastic. I remember an earlier version of the site, which was kind of clunky – maybe why I chose Goodreads instead of Shelfari five years ago – but it’s clean and colorful now. Shelfari rates high on content and interactivity; like Goodreads and LibraryThing, it’s a social networking site for readers (or in their words, “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers”). The front page pushes books that are already popular, including New York Times bestsellers and Amazon bestsellers, but if you dig deeper into the site, you can narrow by category or subject. One of the most useful features I discovered was the Series tab, where you can see all the books in an author’s series, in the correct order – definitely helpful at the reference desk.

I’ve already written about Whichbook; I like it very much. It isn’t nearly as robust as Goodreads, LT, or Shelfari, but it isn’t meant to be; it’s less a social networking site for bookworms and more of a reader’s advisory site. It’s whimsical, with its sliding scales (optimistic to bleak, funny to serious, safe to disturbing) instead of a traditional search box, and it does a good job suggesting off-the-beaten-path books rather than the most popular books. There are lists as well, in categories such as “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Weird and Wonderful,” and you can also create your own lists. Whichbook promotes libraries over Amazon: the “borrow” button is ahead of the “buy” button.

What Should I Read Next?
WSIRN, as it’s called, is one of the most basic sites in this collection. You can create two lists: like and dislike. You can get recommendations based on any title on your list; however, these recommendations are based “purely on collective taste.” That is, books on the same list become associated with each other. This might work fine if everyone liked only one genre, so all mysteries were associated with each other, all romances associated with each other, etc., or if users were able to create and name multiple lists (e.g. “favorite biographies”), but that’s not the case. I have read and loved many books that were wildly different from each other, and the only thing they had in common was that I liked them; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them both to the same person. That said, WSIRN is a simple, quick tool, and the developers may add functionalities in the future.

The Staff Recommends
The Staff Recommends is, as far as I can tell, McSweeney’s editor-at-large John Warner. (Supposedly also his “team of readers,” but all the reviews I read on the site were written by John.) TSR calls itself “an advertorial publication,” meaning they do get paid for recommending books, but they only recommend books they like; furthermore, proceeds are donated to a nonprofit, so I feel confident that the recommendations are honest. So, if you happen to have the same taste as John and his “team of readers,” you’re in luck! Whether you agree with him or not, the reviews are thoughtful and well-written. As of today, there are eight current selections and a few lists (e.g. crime novels) consisting of shorter reviews of more titles. TSR offers fewer points of view and less content than most of the other sites in the article, but it’s worth bookmarking nonetheless.

The main appeal of this site is the “literature map” that it creates when you type in the name of an author. However, there’s no information as to how the relationships between authors are determined. I want to know why Author A and Author B are considered similar: is it the subjects they write about? Their writing style? Hard to say. You can also get recommendations based on authors you like (I tried it; results were pretty accurate, but there were only three). I probably won’t use this regularly, but I do like that it’s author-centric rather than book-centric.

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