The Unsuggestor

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Brian Weatherson links to the Unsuggestor, which uses Amazon personal profiles to match up books people have with books they're not likely to have. It's sort of the inverse of Amazon's engine for recommending books based on what other people who bought what you bought have bought. I tried a few books I've got, and I discovered some disturbing things. Consider the following sets of unrecommendations:

They have the second Harry Potter book opposed to The Gospel According to John, by Leon Morris, a fairly respected evangelical commentary on the fourth gospel. I have both books and like them both very much. Most of the Harry Potter books have several John Piper books turning up in the top five, mostly some of his newer books (which I don't have), but his earlier Desiring God turned up with some of novels by Terry Brooks, one of my favorite fantasy authors. This would again be a case of two books I pretty much like (even if I criticize Piper on a few issues here and there). Some books in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series are put up against John Piper, Josh Harris, Wayne Grudem, A.W. Tozer, J.I. Packer, and other books by evangelicals, including several books I've got or have at least spent time looking through. Pratchett's Reaper Man isn't my favorite of the Discworld series, but a lot of it is funny. Its opposite is Doug Stuart and Gordon Fee's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, one of the best popular introductions to biblical interpretation ever written. Pratchett's much better Lords and Ladies is opposed to Knowing God by J.I. Packer, one of the most important popular introductions to theology in print. While I don't think Grudem's Systematic Theology is well-argued on the level of detailed exegesis (as in the classic tradition of Reformed systematic theologies like Hodge's), it's an excellent reference work, and I think his positions are largely correct on most issues. It's opposed to Pratchett's Pyramids, a Discworld book I very much loved. D.A. Carson's guide to New Testament commentaries, something I use all the time, lists Harry Potter book 6 as its opposite, a book that is next on my list to read. Carson's How Long, O Lord?, the best book I've seen on the problem of evil, also lists Potter book 6 as its first unsuggestion.

8 Comments

I had an almost identical reaction when I saw the books the Unsuggester was putting in opposition. I'm a huge sci-fi/fantasy buff and also a theology-lovin' fool.

My library is evidently quite atypical (as is yours).

One minor correction: the Unsuggester is not based on Amazon's data but on LibraryThing's, and so it's an even more reliable result. It's analyzing bibliophiles' entire libraries (as opposed to Amazon which only knows about things you order from them and disproportionately emphasizes recent books in its recommendations).

Incidentally - I suspect you would LOVE LibraryThing. You should give it a whirl.

I believe I tried to list my library there at some point (unless I'm mistaking this for another site, which I suppose is possible). I got to a certain point, and it told me I had to pay to register to add any more. Since I wasn't close to getting through even half my library, I decided it wasn't worth bothering with any further.

Amazon doesn't just include books you've ordered from them. You can add anything to the list of what you own, even if you had it long before Amazon even existed. I add books there whenever I encounter books in my recommendations that I already have.

I don't think my library is all that atypical of people my age interested in theology and biblical studies. Everyone I know of my generation who reads theology books is very interested in science fiction and fantasy. I don't think there are very many people my age who are even close to being intellectuals who are uninterested in science fiction and fantasy.

I don't think there are very many people my age who are even close to being intellectuals who are uninterested in science fiction and fantasy.

That's an interesting observation. Any ideas why that is?

I have friends who used to be interested in science fiction and fantasy, but as they read more conservative stuff, decided the fiction was sinful.

My hypothesis is that it's simply a sub-species of a more general phenomenon. As forms of legalism in extreme versions of fundamentalism are becoming more sparse in evangelicalism, we're seeing people freed to engage those activities when they see what's good in those activities. So people can dance, play cards, drink alcohol in moderation, read fantasy and science fiction, spend time in fellowship with believers they disagree with on minor issues, wear pants (if they are women or girls), and go to the movies.

In this case in particular, there are several features that I would say particular have a draw. Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most creative and thought-provoking forms of literature. I have two reasons why I describe science fiction and fantasy that way. One is that it distances itself from the assumptions of everyday life and thus can raise interesting philosophical questions more easily. The other is that it involves creativity of a very serious sort, since it involves setting a story not just in some existing period of the earth but actually requires creating a setting on a much grander scale, with Tolkien as the most obvious example of someone who created a whole world with the stories just as a way to explore that world.

In both cases, I think it's not hard to see why intellectuals would be drawn to that sort of thing. I also think it should be the sort of thing that Christians should respect greatly and encourage, since it involves displaying the creative abilities God gave only to humans.

Timothy Burke has an explanation for the skewed results here:
http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=309

Jeremy (tempted to put J-P ala Timberlake)
Tangentially off topic, and I'm not sure if I asked you this before, but have you read Hamilton's Night's Dawn "Trilogy"? It was excellent.

Rey, I don't know that series. I tend to get into a series and then want to finish it before finding something new.

The Washington Post has named Laura Mallory, the Georgia mom who tried to have Harry Potter banned to protect her kids from Wicca, 2006 Idiot of the Year.
Here's the link: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/offbeat/2006/12/idiot_of_the_year_awards_1.html#comments

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