Conventional wisdom says there’s no accounting for taste, though a great deal of money has certainly been invested in trying to do exactly that. Whether it be Amazon’s array of “Customers who viewed this also viewed” predictors or the more dramatic approach that Netflix took in offering a million dollar prize, such projects often end poorly. There is little correlation in people’s hedonism. Pleasure—genuine, soul-quenching pleasure—is ineffable.
No, predicting taste is a business concern, not an aesthetic one. And gone are the days when a keen and knowledgeable salesman can direct you to the next island of pleasure. Being human he could unconsciously detect a thousand points of data—your dress, the condition of the book you hold across your chest, the curling tone of your voice when you say “would you happen to have a book like this?” Salesmanship was an art…back then.
Now we must contend with a computer’s algorithm for direction and frankly it’s downright brutish and linear in its understanding of preference. You liked Borges? How about some more Borges? You looked at golf clubs on Google, why not look at some more golf clubs? Oh, you bought a bestseller, how about all the other bestsellers?
And the really sad part is that people have no other choice but to use these systems. Experts are few and far between these days, and the kind of people who can give you a good book suggestion are for the most part hiding in their rooms, mumbling to themselves inconsolable cares.
But what happens when a reader—let’s call her M— is recently introduced to The Sun Also Rises. M, who had been reluctant to read Hemingway because she had heard he was a bit over the top, anti-Semitic, macho, hunting and war and all those sweaty things. A boy she dated once was really into him…and…what…a…tool…
But one day waiting for her friend to get out of the shower M started thumbing through the text. And what did she find? This was no hunting tale. In fact, Jake Barnes aside, it read like an episode of the Housewives of Beverly Hills. And Lady Brett Ashley! What a bitch! But who could hate her? She was so smart and sexy and sad with her grey woolen skirts, boy’s haircut, and thirst for booze that could rival any man’s…
In short, M was enchanted. (for literature makes much magic)
And desperate to read more, she went to Amazon—that modern day Oracle—and what title did it produce? What may I ask is the equivalent to Lady Brett Ashley?
For Whom the Bell tolls, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, The Grapes of Wrath, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and Cane by Jean Toomer.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
(Ah, but what would be the better choice? Suggestions?)
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