Recommendations 3/14/2021: Behind the Biblioracle Scenes

Answering some reader questions

Now that we have this wonderful space where, we can have some interesting mutual exchanges, rather than merely professing from the pages (or website) of a newspaper, I can answer some of the questions people have been sending me.

Q: Why do you ask for the last five books we’ve read, rather than the reader’s five favorite books?

A: This is something of a perpetual question. I covered it in detail in a column several years ago, but for those who are not Tribune subscribers, I’ll summarize.

There’s two main reasons: 1. To recommend a book for you to read, I only need to know your taste in books, something which is easy to discern from the most recent books you’ve read. 2. If I want to look like a successful recommender of books, it is not in my interest to have the reader comparing the book I recommended to their favorite books of all-time. I’m very confident in my ability to recommend a book that will be at least as good as the last five books you’ve read. My confidence dips if the goal is to knock a title off of your personal book Mount Rushmore.

Q: Why don’t you care if we liked the books we just read or not?

A: Too much information. I know I’m going to pick a book that I’m confident is “good,” (though this does not mean it will have universal appeal by any stretch), so I really only need to know someone’s taste to try to make a quality recommendation. Adding variables to that equation makes the choice more difficult. That said, when people include that information, I always go back and read it after I’ve made the recommendation because I love to know what people have to say about what they’ve been reading.

Q: How do you choose which lists of books to use?

A: By far, the most important criteria for the choosing of a list of books to feature in the column is that it includes the name and hometown of the requester. At times, If I really really really want to use a list and it doesn’t have that information, I will send an email asking for the info, but this inevitably results in a delay that I may not be able to afford. Other than that, I try to take them in chronological order until some get too old to still be timely because the requester will have read five different books by the time I’ve gotten to it.

That’s why I encourage people to send new requests if it’s been awhile, and they haven’t been chosen.

Q: How do you know what to recommend when you haven’t read the books the requester has recently read?

A: This is pretty common. I have a few strategies I use to hone in on a good choice for the recommendation.

  1. Sometimes I may not have read the specific books, but I’ve read other books by the same authors, so I use that knowledge to inform my choice.

  2. I supplement anything I know by looking up information about the books on the list. You can glean quite a bit about what a book is like by the description, the blurbs (particularly who is blurbing it), capsule reviews, and even the cover, which is a strong signal of how the publisher views the book.

  3. I take a wholistic view of the list. Even if I haven’t read the books, a list of five recent reads gives a good gauge of what the reader is interested in. If that’s clear from the list, I can gravitate towards a recommendation that will make sense.

Q: Are you ever stymied by a list and can’t muster a recommendation?

A: Please don’t take this as a challenge to stump the Biblioracle, but the answer is…rarely. Once I choose a list, I feel committed to see the process through to a recommendation. I have weak areas for sure, particularly around contemporary fantasy and contemporary young adult, where finding a book for a reader that gravitates towards those genres is a challenge, but that challenge often makes me work on my own shortcomings of knowledge.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, doing the recommendations may appear to be a service for readers, but it is also a mechanism of engagement and learning for me. I often discover books and writers from lists readers send to me that I was not aware of. Thinking through the problem of offering a good recommendation can be challenging, but it’s a worthwhile challenge.

Q: What percentage of your recommendations hit the mark?

A: It’s impossible to say with any precision. I hear from both people who really enjoyed what I recommended and others who were underwhelmed, as well as others who will say that I not only hit the mark, but scored a direct bullseye. (That’s fun when it happens.) The ratio of hit the mark to underwhelmed in my email is 4 or 5 to 1, so I like to think I’m batting around 80% or even better. I’m always pleased to hear reader feedback on a choice.

If anyone has any other questions they’d like to ask, you can find me by responding to any of these emails.

On to this week’s recommendations!

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All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. We’re up to $20.60 in earnings for the year, which means we’ve crossed a threshold where I can cash out and send the dough to Open Books. Thank you all very much!

I’m always looking for more lists of five recent reads, as well as more readers looking for recommendations. Smash those buttons!

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1. Pretty Things by Janelle Brown
2. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
3. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
4. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
5. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Chris M. - New Smyrna Beach, Fl.

Here’s a list that’s a good example for my method. I haven’t read any of these, but I’m familiar with several of them and they cluster around what I think of as “mainstream” fiction, which is “literary” fiction that aims for as broad appeal as possible. Another way of thinking of it is that these are the books that readers read. This makes it easy to recommend a book because we’re looking at a reader, but it’s a bit harder to find a book that Chris hasn’t read, or wouldn’t find on her own. This makes me go back in the past a bit to find a book/author who fits this profile, but is maybe a little bit less visible. In this case, that means Goodbye Without Leaving by Laurie Colwin.

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
2. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Mara
3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
4. The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
5. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Susan P. - Glen Ellyn, IL

Similar reader profile to the last list, with the exception that I’ve read several of these books myself. This means I can dip into just about any book I’ve read and liked. I’m going with The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

1. Slow Horses by Nick Herron
2. The Great Gatsby by F. S. Fitzgerald
3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
4. Alas Babylon by Pat Frank
5. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Bill L. - Chicago, IL

Anybody who has read The Great Gatsby and Revolutionary Road also has to read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Don’t know why, I don’t make the rules.

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