Who Should You Go to for Book Recommendations?

The New York Public Library system announced last week that their online catalogue will now include book recommendations. It works much the way recommendations on Amazon work: go to the catalogue page for a specific book, and you can also find other titles you might enjoy. So if you're one of those people who loves books but can't ever seem to find just one title that sounds good, this service might be your new best friend.

I've never been all that impressed by Amazon recommendations. After all, they're purely based on what other people are buying — they're even labeled "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought." Given how vast and varied people's reading tastes should be, I've never understood why I should trust those selections. It's not as though anyone put any thought into them. Plus, it's pretty blatantly just want to make you buy more stuff, not to help you find new and exciting books.

Fortunately, the New York Public Library Recommendations operate off a different model entirely. Powered by Bookish Recommends, the system recommends books based on similar characteristics. Which already sounds so much better (unsurprisingly, since libraries are awesome).

The NYPL recommendations are still being phased in and aren't available for every title yet, but in the spirit of competition, I decided to see how they compare against Amazon recommendations, using 10 of my favorite books as test cases. Let's check it out, shall we?

Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The NYPL recommendations include a novel I've already read and loved, a David Sedaris book, and a book with the intriguing title The Boy Who Could See Demons. Amazon, on the other hand, recommends five other Gaiman books, and that same novel I'd read from the NYPL recommendations. So even though these are all great titles, I could have figured out five of them on my own.

Verdict: NYPL

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Amazon recommendations include four other Jane Austen novels that I could have obviously found on my own, but it does include King Lear, too, and gets major points for also recommending The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The NYPL recommendations on the other hand include New Moon by Stephanie Meyer and so nothing else really matters.

Verdict: Amazon

The Hakawati by Rabih Alemedine

The NYPL recommends an interesting looking book called Finding Nouf, a title by Leila Aboulela who I've heard of from a friend, and Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, which is also one of my favorite books, and makes sense to me as a related title. Amazon, on the other hand, includes At Night We Walk In Circles, which I've read and greatly enjoyed, but don't think is very related, plus a few other seemingly random titles. The choice here is clear.

Verdict: NYPL

Beloved by Toni Morrison

So, I know that Oedipus Rex and The Stranger are classics, but I don't seem them as relevant to Toni Morrison's Beloved, no matter what Amazon says. Though I will give Amazon some credit for The Handmaid's Tale. I'm more favorable towards NYPL's two Carlos Fuentes recommendations, but I also don't see The Night Circus as overly relevant, either, though I've heard it's excellent. So really, this one's a toss up.

Verdict: Tie

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

This one's also tough, with both sites making a few missteps (an animal rights manifesto slash memoir? Really NYPL?). But with Amazon mostly recommending other Kingsolver titles, I'm going to say NYPL pushes themselves ahead with a Annie Proulx book.

Verdict: NYPL

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Both sites provide some quality young adult titles, though Amazon is heavy on the John Green while NYPL is heavy on the obscure (plus The Cuckoo's Calling, for some reason). But since Amazon also recommends we buy the Fault in Our Stars movie poster, I'm going to say they lose.

Verdict: NYPL

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This one's a tough one. Amazon recommends two titles that look intriguing, Crossing the Mangrove, and The Joys of Motherhood, but also includes other titles by Adichie and a Dave Eggers novel that I don't see as related. The New York Public Library, on the other hand wants me to check out an intriguing book called East of the Sun and a Margaret Atwood novel, but does include an Adichie novel of its own.

Verdict: Tie

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The NYPL has a few solid titles, including Brideshead Revisited and a Kate Atkinson novel I've heard good things about, but I am prejudiced enough against Jonathan Frazen that I see The Corrections as a huge black mark. But then Amazon went and only recommended other Margaret Atwood titles. Which are not useful recommendations since I could figure those out all on my own.

Verdict: NYPL

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

Amazon once again recommends only books by the same author. So even though I'm a little miffed at NYPL for not having recommendations available on my favorite Louise Erdrich title The Round House, they win my heart back and then some with a little Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday, and Barbara Kingsolver.

Verdict: NYPL

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

NYPL only has one recommendation available for this title, The Seeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey, and even though it looks interesting, it's hard to compete with Amazon's array on this one: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amitav Ghosh, and a book called The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Verdict: Amazon

Final Tally:

Amazon: 2; New York Public Library: 6

Congrats, NYPL! I might live 2,000 miles away, but I have a feeling I'll be consulting you for book recommendations quite a bit.

Images: Barnes and Noble