Guest Column: Algorithms and Book Groups

Guest Column: Algorithms and Book Groups

One of my readers, a book group member, felt the urge to write a guest column after reading my column about algorithms a couple of weeks ago. You may read it below in quotations, followed by my comments.

"Another thing algorithms do is feed you suggestions about more of what you just read. If you read a news article, you will get suggestions about more of what you read. Therefore, you are not exposed to a variety of ideas or opinions, only more information that reinforces the opinion you already hold. So much for social media.

Which brings up the idea of book clubs. Many, many members of book clubs, including Food for Thought, at Gering Public Library say, 'I joined this book club to read books that I wouldn't ordinarily choose.' There is a wide variety in the selections. Not everyone enjoys every book. Some admit they didn't finish the month's book. But many times people admit they really liked the book and would never have chosen it off the shelf. They are often happy to have found a new author's works to explore.

Book clubs’ monthly offerings are usually chosen from lists made up by members who have read or want to read a book, suggestions from the library staff, or books currently being discussed by the public. Some are long (January reading), some are short (maybe during November), some are nonfiction and some are fiction with discussable characters and situations. But there is always something to talk about by people interested in lively discussion.

An algorithm choosing similar books would not satisfy the intellectual curiosity of this book club."

On the topic of books people might not choose on their own, I want to share a story. The Food for Thought group read "Far From the Tree: parents, children, and the search for identity" by Andrew Solomon. Solomon discusses how children are different from their parents. He covers topics such as mental illness, deafness and a variety of other physical conditions. Other chapters involve children who become prodigies, or criminals, or were conceived in rape. This book has nearly 700 pages, and each chapter stands alone. I suggested that book group members find a chapter or two that appealed to them and then be prepared to discuss what they read. It was an opportunity to learn about things we were curious about, like transgendered people.

After the discussion one of the book group members discovered that a close relative had been diagnosed with a condition that was covered in the book. She checked out "Far From the Tree" again to read that particular chapter. She would not have selected this book from the shelf for her personal reading. If she hadn't been in our book group, she would have had no idea that sort of information was available.

Algorithms have made our lives easier, but relying on them too much limits our knowledge, our choices, and ultimately our experiences.