What is Book Lab?
We conduct literary experiments.
One night (because I lie awake pondering stupid crap) I wondered how many great stories languish behind ugly covers. Covers so fugly no one touches them. Left on shelves so long that the librarian eventually yanks them to the Withdrawal Cart o’ Death.
Poor, neglected characters. Dialogue silenced, plots stifled. Unable to fufill their literary duty.
All because we’re a bunch of judgmental turds.
. . . it’s true. We learned that in our first experiment.
So this book could totally be awesome:
But we KNOW this one is:
And don’t lie.
You wouldn’t pick this copy up if you didn’t know better.
We’re several experiments in. The latest conceived when I discovered this fascinating contraption at the library called THE MAGIC BOOK MACHINE.
(Okay, fine. It’s a program called Novelist. But Magic Book Machine —MBM for short—sounds way better.)
Anyway, Novelist is this awesome program where you type in bullet words (or a book or author you love)
. . . AND IT SPITS OUT RECOMMENDATIONS!
J a z z f i n g e r s !
How did I not know about this before? You mean, I can walk up and type England Time Travel Psychological
Paul McCartney Teapot Wonderland Champagne and it’ll spit out a list? Just for me?
. . . but wait.
I glanced at the reference desk.
Our librarian bent over a document with a patron. Helping. Simplifying. Smiling. Doing their public service thang.
My anxious little fingers trembled over the MBM.
What about the librarian?
Our trusty, knowledgeable, live-to-serve librarian?
The patron stood, thanked her, then walked away smiling.
Ooohhhhhhh I felt an experiment bubbling.
What if– just what if— I fed words to the MBM. Then gave the same words to a librarian.
Human vs. Machine?
“The machine will probably win,” warned Deb, herself a librarian.
Only one way to find out.
I asked Book Labbers to write down 20 words. 10 describing books they love, 10 no thank yous, and the title of the last badass book they read.
I fed our lists to the MBM.
. . . then gave the same lists to Ashley, the children’s librarian at the San Marcos Public Library.
Not only is she personable, well read, quirktastic, and a Book Lab enthusiast: I knew she could handle it if we thought her books sucked.
But first up: MACHINE!
I plugged in words to Novelist. It churned and sputtered.
It listed titles and I headed to our
boozefest meeting with an armful of books, then made everyone guess which book belonged to whom.
We read our MBM picks, then gathered again. This time with Ashley’s selections:
Had we pigeon-holed ourselves in this exercise? Sorta.
Murdered chick in the woods? Nedra’s
Depressed Italian housewife? Emily’s.
Eiffel Tower on the cover? Probably mine.
We played ‘guess whose book’ and Nedra won again –but it wasn’t so obvious this time.
Ashley threw some curve balls.
So who did better. Person or program. Mind or matrix.
The Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable: A marriage-in-trouble American travels to Paris to appraise an apartment full of antiques. There she finds the owner’s diary and a French colleague who wants more than her expertise.
Blackout by Connie Willis: In 2060, Oxford University students observe history by time-travel. All swell until three students get stuck in London during the Blitz.
I would’ve never ever picked Blackout for myself (pesky sci-fi label), but . . . I loved it. I’m a British, World War II, AND time-travel enthusiast so this book woulda had to been a steaming corn-filled turd not to please me. Con: It was a bit long. And if war-time Britain isn’t your thing, I’m not sure this would be your cuppa tea. But I thought it was fanbloodytastic. 5 stars.
A Paris Apartment, however, disappointed. I didn’t feel for the protagonist.The dialogue and sexual tension felt contrived, and the author WAY overused the word ‘provenance.’ Beautiful cover, though. 3 stars.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman: Rome-based writers share personal stories surrounding their ill-fated, English-language newspaper.
Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt: Amid clashing politics and shifting sexual roles in the 1960s, this complicated, multi-faceted novel reveals what books mean to us, and the impact of literature over time.
“I loved The Imperfectionists until the very last chapter. Then it nose dived. But overall, I enjoyed it. And would’ve never picked this for myself. So well done, Magic Book Machine! 3.5 stars.”
“As for Babel Tower, I can see why Ashley picked this for me. It’s full of Italian art and biblical connotation. But I’d only recommend it to a high-brow reader. It was SUPER dense. 4 stars.”
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: War brings out the best and worst of a doctor, working in a POW camp where Allied soldiers are forced to build a railway under appalling conditions. ( Winner of the Man Booker Prize.)
White Heat by M.J. McGrath: An icy whodunnit about 3 murders in Greenland.
“The first 40 pages of Narrow Road to the Deep North were torture. But then I really got into it. It had human struggle, different cultures and historical adventure, and I love all that! I’d definitely recommend this one. 4 stars.”
“White Heat was so much like Forty Days Without a Shadow by Olivier Truc, it was weird! This murder mystery was Inuits vs. Eskimos, and I’d recommend it to anyone who can appreciate details about seal’s blood soup. 3 stars.”
Winner: MAGIC BOOK MACHINE.
Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight: Struggling arts columnist uncovers dark town secrets while investigating local murdered newborn.
Finding Claire Fletcher by Lisa Regan: Troubled detective attempts to find kidnapped Claire Fletcher, abducted ten years ago by sadist.
(Note: We all thought this was a bad cover.)
“I love suspenseful murder mysteries and both these books had those elements. But Where They Found Her was slightly ‘lighter’ somehow. Very enjoyable but not quite as ‘dark’ as the other! I’d still recommend it. 4.5 stars.”
“I liked this story . . . a lot, actually. It was super dark and psychological, which I love. Claire Fletcher is a fighter, and needed to be because her captor was a freak sicko! 4.8 stars!”
School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister: Eight students share personal stories and recipes at weekly cooking class hosted by local restaurateur.
Nation by Terry Pratchett: Young Mau is the sole survivor when a tsunami destroys his island home. But then he finds shipwrecked Daphne, who survived her own tragedy. From different worlds, they attempt to forge . . .
“Interesting the Magic Book Machine picked School of Essential Ingredients for me. I was going to read this, anyway. It’s not what I’d call ‘high literature,’ but it was enjoyable, comforting somehow, and I read it fast. The chapters tell stories from different characters perspective, which I like, but their back stories I found a little weak. 3 stars.”
“I hate Nation’s cover and I would’ve never picked this for myself. But this book surprised me. It’s different from anything Pratchett has ever written. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book, but I can tell you the story will stay with me a long time. 3 stars.”
The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: World-class soprano seeks to reclaim her voice from the curse winding through her family tree.
In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip: Man coping with death of his wife and infant child is cursed by witch in a magical forest.
“I feel there was some magic to the MBM’s pick: The Daughters. Mostly because of the Polish aspect (I’m Polish). I also love the Operatic themes and female lineage weaving throughout this story. Thumbs up! 4.3 stars!”
“In the Forests of Serre was a pleasant surprise. The cover was a bit cheesy and the story –full of wizards and magical creatures– reminded me of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. 3.5 stars.”
Winner: MAGIC BOOK MACHINE
In case you weren’t tallying, the human won.
The Magic Book Machine is super fun to play with. But it doesn’t know us. It also pulls from a pre-vetted list of newish books that aren’t likely to suck.
Is it a valuable tool? Totally.
Will we use it again? Definitely.
But . . . I dunno.
For me it goes back to that ugly book. The one that hasn’t been checked out since 1992.
Novelist isn’t programmed to know or recommend that title. Only a select few have that book’s back.
Librarians dedicate their lives to books. ALL books. Dusty and unloved to shiny, bestseller new.
“And getting them into the right hands is like Zen archery,” says Ashley, for whom we are grateful.
(Well done, human. We hoped you’d win.)
Next Book Lab:
BOOK vs. MOVIE
Is the book always better than the movie?