Searching for Good (Oh!); or At Least Good Enough

I love to discover new authors, filmmakers, genres, artists, facts, and viewpoints. I love to explore the world, its experiences, and its search for meaning through a wide variety of eyes and ears, filters and assumptions, joys and hardships.

With the advent of the Internet, digital media, and extraordinary personal technology I now have more access to more titles across more categories and genres and viewpoints than ever before. More people can produce, and more people can consume without the prohibitive barriers to entry that kept small and independent voices from entering the market.

It should be nirvana for someone like me, but that’s not quite how it’s worked out. It turns out there are too many titles, too many authors, and too many voices to get a real handle on the vast diversity available. It’s hard to find a particular thing.

Likewise, with that massive democratization of content has come a increase in easy accessibility to truly awful stuff—poorly written, poorly told, poorly produced, over-attenuated, overwrought. There may be ten times the number of available titles, but Sturgeon’s Law still holds true—ninety percent of it is still crap.

Services like Pandora do an interesting thing with music. By applying a battery of technological deconstructions of various musical elements they’ve developed a Music Genome Project that can actual analyze digital music files for core elements and determine affinity attributes, giving their service an ability to find similar music and add it to a dynamic playlist.

The effect is that the services gives me more of what I already like, from a wider variety of artists. In other words, it helps me discover new artists already in-genre, but it does little to reveal complementary genres or new styles (at least it hasn’t for me so far).

Amazon uses buyer behavior analytics combined with ordinary product categories to show trends in both browsing and purchasing habits. This helps me see what other people are looking at and provides a chance for me to look at products or titles that have little direct affinity to a currently selected item, but that are connected in the minds of other buyers by non-intuitive or complex means. It leverages the minds of customers as revealed through browsing habits to open previously unconsidered avenues to me.

Netflix uses simple objective categorization in combination with massive opinion-gathering from customers to create both absolute and relative approval rankings. By further analyzing an individual subscriber’s selections they create a more complete affinity map that can create dynamic categories never intended by the original artists or distributors. The effect is that they can map my affinity for dark (yet hopeful) stories set in foreign (or fantastic) settings that reveal philosophical or spiritual explorations in odd or absurd ways without concern for realistic media.

In other words, Netflix is—through massive analytics of both observed behavior and polled preference—coming closer to predicting interests I didn’t know I had, but that were suggested by the films I both watch and like. Combined with reader reviews that express specific reasons for rankings, Netflix gives me the most effective set of recommendations that help me reach beyond my current interests to new and varied interests of any other service so far.

(The fact that my children watch off the same account messes that up a bit; the blend of children’s animation; moody, eastern-European or Asian absurdist drama; and science fact/documentary/Top Gear by various family members must be stressing their algorithms a bit.)

But even Netflix comes up short because it doesn’t capture subtlety well. It’s amazingly powerful and effective, but still a bit of a blunt instrument.

Ultimately, the only deeply effective tool for recommendation I’ve found is simple conversation with people who know something whereof they speak. Not just the high critics, but pop critics and ordinary consumers with a modicum of self-awareness and communications skill.

In other words, the blogs, community sites, conferences, and other discussion forums that bring together a diverse audience that share some elements of affinity, but are not limited by that affinity. The intelligent discussion of ideas, preferences, and hopes that makes a previously uninteresting title more intriguing.

As always happens with the advent of new technologies, people worry that the new thing will supplant the old. But just as eBooks is expanding to total number of titles sold (the reduction in print sales is less than the increase in eMedia sales), technological means of identifying affinities and recommending titles is only another tool in the quiver of the arts explorer—just one more way of being exposed to new titles and new visions.

With the rapidly expanding availability of eMedia works, we need the best of both—human and technological analytics—to sift the vast possibilities and expose the jewels, the pearls of great price waiting unnoticed to be found by those who can be most served by them.

Suggestions for tools, applications, blogs, forums, etc. that touch on film, music, art, literature, essay, history, poetry, and more would be greatly appreciated to help the rest of us discover those jewels.


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11 Responses to Searching for Good (Oh!); or At Least Good Enough

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A well-developed set of thoughts. How do we get to things we don’t know that we’ll like because we haven’t been sufficiently exposed to their like before? Hence the need for genuine human interactions that expose us to the different–as opposed to simply more of the same.

  2. Julie Nichols says:

    I recommend for reviews of literary magazines. Many of these “little mags” also have wonderful art along with poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction (as well as book reviews) by up and coming visual and textual artists. Check out NewPages–the reviews include websites and summaries. Each review is a quick, helpful read.

  3. Chris Bigelow says:

    A peripheral comment: My hypothesis is that the readership rate for ebooks is much lower than for printed books. In other words, more books may be getting SOLD, but a smaller proportion are getting READ.

    My reasons include: 1) ebooks are cheaper or often free, so we acquire more of them, but we have less time than ever for leisurely reading (although, on the other hand, ebook portability does allow us to fill in more time gaps with reading); 2) due to the nature of e-readers, it’s easy to forget you own a particular title; my Kindle is full of books that I’ve forgotten I bought, whereas a physical book takes up its own space and projects an importuning presence; 3) in my opinion, it’s easier to quit reading an ebook that isn’t gripping enough than it is a physical book; the neglected ebook just disappears down your list, whereas a neglected physical book makes you feel guiltier unless you take steps to eject it from your habitat.

    I hope some studies along these lines are done sometime, to find out how ebooks affect actual reading rates, as opposed to simply sales.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      But the same is true of print books as well. Many are bundled, many (arguably most) are given as gifts or delivered as book club selections and end up on a pile or land unread on a bookshelf, many are bought with the best of intentions but lay on the bedside table until finally shelved or put in a less visible pile on the floor.

      My argument is precisely that those who prefer print books will tend to buy print books, and those who are drawn to ebooks tend to prefer their unique features and conveniences. Many ebook readers are people who simply don’t have the desire or ability to tote print volumes, but would be more than happy to read an ebook while sitting in a waiting room, on an airplane, etc. The ability to choose from a variety of texts to suit my mood, situation, or available reading time is a huge convenience. A fair-sized library is always immediately at hand. It does allow for flitting or uncareful reading, but it also increases the number of minutes I spend reading in a day—a fair tradeoff to me.

      Some of us are literary omnivores who will read anything any time. I put the Deseret Bookshelf free ebooks on my iPad, have every lesson manual and church magazine since 1970 on there as well, and use them all regularly during lessons to dive deeper into the concepts offered in talks and lessons. I also have my hard copy of Bushman’s _Rough Stone Rolling_ that I read in the larger gaps. For me the medium is less relevant than the access. I read printed books at night before I sleep (more than 200 books in stacks by both sides of our bed)–currently finishing _Drood_ by Dan Simmons; I read digital text most of the rest of the time.

      Family scripture reading is a hoot because I use my iPad, my wife reads online at, my daughter reads from the volume 1 of the History of the Church print set, and my boys all use their regular printed scriptures. Last night when we read D&C section 85, my daughter offered the context from the History of the Church, and I quickly followed the hyperlink to read the reference to Ezra in the last verse with no delays or hitches.

      Are they same reading experience? No. Different media for different reader types expands the total served market and puts titles in front of more eyes. A diversity of media enriches a more diverse community or readers, which has to be a good thing in the end.

      In any case, sales are sales and deliveries are deliveries. Different readers have different habits, but most haven’t read but a tenth of the books they own—either printed or digital. New readers don’t always follow old patterns, so using the practices and assumptions of print reading patterns to analyze new media titles seems like a good way to validate print assumption without recognizing the new rules that govern e-reading.

      I’d love to see the study, too. But I’d also like to see the data categorized by age, genre, and preferred medium so we can see if reading patterns really are the same (or even substantially similar) across print and digital media readers.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        And I’d love to see the study, too (studies?). Which, I admit, makes me a complete and total geek.

        For that matter, I’d love to see a more basic study on whether (a) electronic book sales are causing more or fewer copies to be sold (and more or less money from those sales), and (b) whether people now spending money on ebooks are the same people who would have spent, used to spend, and/or are spending money on print books. Surely someone’s done a study on that…

  4. I admit that when I read an article like this, I automatically wonder if I write crap.

    I don’t think I do… perhaps one man’s crap is another man’s… um… crap filled sandbox? Or something.

    Maybe that would be a good post… the definition of crap.

    (all said in a light tone, but with some real introspection….)

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I like the democratization of publishing that new media brings—I think more jewels will be found, more transformative works will be produced, and more insight into viewpoints will come to light.

      But the trade-off is that with a lowered bar to entry, most new works will not be particularly good. Which is why I don’t see publishers going away any time soon. A juried reading and acceptance process refines many a raw (unsuccessful) book into a powerful, market-successful book. I think impatience to see works in print will lead many potentially excellent authors to settle for “good enough” rather than going through that last (and often difficult) stage of testing and refinement.

      And that’s why publisher remain valuable, and criticism at both the pop and academic levels is so critical—they help us identify the jewels that have always been there. With the increased number of titles, that service is more valuable (and more desperately needed) than ever before.

      Nothing changed in terms of crap production—we just see yesterday’s rejected manuscripts self-published today right alongside juried and refined titles. Any help I can get to separate the better from the rest is truly appreciated.

  5. If anyone here has mentioned Goodreads or other such “book-sharing” social network-type sites, I must have missed it. But when people I know, whose taste I trust, recommend a book they enjoyed in a review on Goodreads, I am more likely to try such a book, and I’ve found some things that I would have hated to miss.

    Of course, that pre-supposes that people will actually review the books they’ve read. Too many (for the purposes discussed here) aren’t very helpful, because all they do is rate the books (1-5 stars ).

    Anyway, I offer such book “groups” as one place to find some of the Real Finds for reading.

    • Jonathan Langford says:


      You make a good point. Traditionally, as Scott Parkin points out, publishers have acted as one of the filters of good quality. But there’s no reason why publishers should necessarily be the ones to fill that role. In fact, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in publishers serving that kind of role.

      One of the things that could happen is that communities such as Goodreads–and AML for that matter–could step up to the plate and serve as filters for quality. Unfortunately, so far that seems to have happened only in limited ways, at least partly because (as you point out) most people don’t choose to review the books they read. I would add that many reviews don’t provide a lot of content and substance.

      But some do. I’ve encountered book bloggers who do an exceptional job of writing about the books they review–positives, negatives, and much else. Many of them post at least an abbreviated version of their review on Goodreads. Unfortunately, those good reviews can get easily lost in the mix… Other institutions, such as the Whitney Awards process, also seem to me to do a good job of identifying high quality that rises to the top in specific categories.

      I agree with Scott that there’s value in the filtering function that publishers serve, even if it’s only a side-effect of their primary purpose (that is, identifying books that will sell). But like you, Kathleen, I’d like to see reader and reviewer communities take on more of that role.

  6. So: publishers as gatekeepers. I can see that. I actually agree with that to some degree… but there are some niche markets or unconventional works that won’t fit into any publisher’s (let’s just say it) rigidly defined schema of what they are willing to try to market. As someone who has been submitting for five years, and just b a r e l y has had a manuscript accepted for publication, I can see the value of self-publishing for instance. But you’re right about the problems of lowered quality. What if, for instance, the problem with the work was that it needed a couple more rewrites, and if self-publishing options hadn’t been out there, the author would have done the extra work and then we’d be reading something much better?

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