Amazon knows, for instance, that in the past I’ve purchased Middlemarch, and Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. It also knows that I’ve recently searched for James Salter, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Vladimir Nabokov. What Amazon doesn’t know is that Middlemarch was a replacement for a never-returned older copy, Klassen was a one-off gift for my nephew, and that I wanted to throw Kingsolver’s book out the nearest window. Yes, I searched for Salter because I think he’s a literary genius and want to read every word that man has written, but the Hawthorne was for research and the Nabokov was simply to ooh and ahh at the pretty new covers. So Amazon keeps asking if I’d like to purchase Pnin andLolita, both of which I already own, and only one of which I care to read. What Amazon does not (and cannot) do, is understand how keenly I envisioned George Eliot’s small British town on the cusp of industry in Middlemarch, and thus place in my hands Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a novel that struggles with the same ideas, and may have informed Eliot’s sensibility. While it may contain a library of sorts, Amazon is not, alas, a librarian.
The irony of these book recommendation engines is that they seek to solve a problem that society doesn’t have. Smart, high-functioning recommendation engines already exist, and they’re readily available online and in print: They’re called Dwight Garner, and Robert Silvers, and that long wooden table at the entrance to Kramerbooks, or whatever your local independent bookstore is named. I have two personal engines of my own, my colleagues Chloe Schama and Leon Wieseltier, each of whom contains millions of bits of bookish knowledge and knows my tastes and curiosities. It is because of them, and not some algorithm, that I’ve delved into Salter, and Eliot’s essays, and Muriel Spark. No engine can ever know, as Schama and Wieseltier do, that I bizarrely prefer books about cold places, and will always pass up a novel that takes place too close to the equator….