Sunday, April 8, 2007

Books for non-religious people

So I have a lot of fun with LibraryThing's Unsuggester, just finding what kinds of books don't go with other kinds of books. And I thought, well, in honor of the fact that I went to my family's church for the first time since, let's see, Easter last year (Christmas was at my cousins'), I'd post about all these Christian books results that keep popping up. The idea of the UnSuggester is that it finds books that, statistically, are very unlikely to be found in the libraries of owners of the books you search. The thing's addictive . . . (If you'd like an explanation of how the thing works, better than I can put it, try this post on the LibraryThing blog. Which quotes another blog I read, actually, but Neil Gaiman's posts are so long that if I linked right to him *I*'d have to pull out the quote . . .)

But anyhow, the optimal anti-Christian library (if it were composed entirely of books I own):

Obviously, it would include the blatantly irreverent, like Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, like Thud! and Guards! Guards!, although that might have something to do with the exclamation points. Where's My Cow?, sadly, does not make the cut; it does include some religious books, but its UnSuggestions are much more of a mixed bag.

And the nonfiction section of this anti-Christian library would feature, quite prominently, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. If we expand the scope to not only books that I own, but books that I have read and enjoyed, we would *not* be able to include Richard Dawkins' works on evolution, despite the atheism professed throughout; these UnSuggestions are instead rife with YA, chick lit, and popular fiction that haunt "intellectual" books. Even Dawkins' atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, is firmly not in the anti-Christian camp.

If we were trying to create a library for the anti-Christian anti-programmer (or the anti-library for the Christan programmer?), it would feature rather prominently Lemony Snicket, for example The Bad Beginning, and, to a lesser extent, The Miserable Mill.

And if we look at the six most owned books on LibraryThing, that is, the Harry Potter books, we discover that for some mysterious reason suggestions have not been generated for Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, or Prisoner of Azkaban. But for the other four books, we discover that these are the most anti-Christian books of all -- virtually every UnSuggestion is a Christian book. The "Rowling-is-the-devil" crowd have done their work well . . .

Another fun UnSuggester game is finding the "contradictions" in one's own library. The most statistically unlikely property of my own library is the combination of YA chick-lit and fairly serious intellectual books. The best pair I can find is The Princess Diaries and How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, 5th and 7th on each other's lists, respectively. The second-best I can find is also Pinker-related. Although the UnSuggestions for The Language Instinct contain more that I haven't heard of than that I own, two other chick-lits, Knocked out by My Nunga-Nungas and Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants feature it at number 6 and number 10, respectively.

Reading the full list for How the Mind Works is like reading a list of my favorite books circa 7th and 8th grade, which is rather a hoot, and full of nostalgia. (But does that mean that I am the opposite, statistically, at age 17 than I was at age 13?) I used to own so many Tamora Pierce books, and although now they have found good homes at a used book shop or the children's hospital, depending on when I decided to get rid of them, sometimes I still read them from the library when I'm feeling excessively nostalgic for my childhood, and I'll read her new books, to catch up on old friends more than because they're wonderfully written. Sometimes I do wish I'd held on to some of them, although I don't know where I'd put them -- my shelves overflow[eth]. (What's an appropriately archaic 3rd-plural marker?)

And of course, the beauty of quests like this -- finding out one's own statistical discrepancies on LibraryThing -- is that because this is data about members, if I notice contradictions like these, then enter the contradictory books into my collection, then not only have I found a motivation to enter more books (always a good thing!), but have I actually changed the recommendations, made them a little more accurate, a little more receptive to the diversity that exists among book collections.

. . . And, of course, the next time the suggestions are regenerated, my library will have fewer of these coincidences, because the mere fact of my owning How the Mind Works will push it down about 20 places on the Princes Diaries list.