Introducing the Book Rat Project


Can a book critic transform herself into a human algorithm? You're soon to find out. This week, we're embarking on an experiment here at PageViews. For the forseeable future, my coworker Will Delman will read everything I tell him to read. Rather than impose my tastes upon him, I'll attempt to figure out what he'll like based on past preferences. Every week, he'll tell me how I did, and I'll modify my reccomendations based on his feedback. In addition to his weekly report card here on PageViews, he'll post capsule reviews on Twitter nearly every day.

We're going to call this experiment "The Book Rat Project." Because he's a lab rat, but for books. Ha?


My first course of action was ascertain what Will [herewith refered to as "the subject"] might like to read. I sent the subject a brief questionnaire. Here are some of his answers. 

1. What are your favorite books and authors of all time? 

Anything by David Foster Wallace (except Oblivion), anything by Kurt Vonnegut (especially Cat's Cradle), anything by Kafka (especially The Trial), The Satanic Verses, The Indian Bride, Anathem, The Idoru Trilogy, The New York Trilogy, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Eternal Golden Braid, Zen Mind Beginners Mind, The Three Pillars of Zen, Song of Mind, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, Devil in the White City, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Ellen Whele, Jorie Graham, Eliot
(Ed. note: Sweet! Infinite Jest and the New York Trilogy are some of my favorite books as well! I'm glad we have some common ground, here.)
2. What are some of the best books you've read recently?
Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World , Paul Collins' The Murder of the Century, Karin Fossum's Broken, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Robert J. Sawyer's WWW Trilogy, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrieta Lacks.
Subject: "Note that none of these books were, stylistically speaking (with the exception of The Gone Away World), particularly dense, which made them kind of perfect for the train."
(Ed. note: Ruh roh, I haven't read any of these, but I adore Paul Collins' other books.)
3. What genres do you like?

I'm a sucker for a well-written mystery, but I really love pieces of fiction that cross the the sci-fi, mystery, speculative, action and literary genres.

4. Have you ever read a book in a genre you usually steer clear of and were surprised by how much you enjoyed it?
Yes! Interview with a Vampire (pop-goth fiction), Moby Dick (super long books), The Great Gatsby (I generally hate stories that revolve around rich people and parties, but I tore through Gatsby in about two days), For Whom the Bell Tolls (I hate Hemingway), The Hunt for Red October (I hate Tom Clancy).
(Ed. note: Hem and Clancy are genres unto themselves.)
5. What book did you hate the most that you read in school? 

It's a tie between The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men. The Scarlet Letter just made me angry, and I found Of Mice and Men slow, sad, and boring (I didn't need help being depressed--I was already a huge Nirvana/Pumpkins fan).
(Ed. note: The Scarlet Letter totally sucks, but I'd take Steinbeck over Billy Corgan any day.)
6. What was the best book you were forced to read? 
Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Lord of the Flies.
(Ed note: Could I be picking up on a trend?)
7. Whart are some of your favorite movies?

The 3rd Man, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, Swimming Pool, Ghost in the Shell, The Trial, Batman (the Michael Keaton one), Star Wars, Primer, Clue, Crouching Tiger, The Life of Brian, Kill Bill 1 & 2, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Moon, 2001.

8. And your favorite TV shows?

In no particular order: Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who (going all the way back to Tom Baker), Arrested Development, Prime Suspect, An Idiot Abroad, Coupling, The Wire, Portlandia, STNG, Psych, Monk, Misfits, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report

(Ed. note: Someone likes television!)
9. If you could get drunk with any author, who would it be?

This is another tough one. Probably Hunter S. Thompson. We could get shitfaced, yell about politics, pick a fight/s, run out the backdoor, and spend the rest of the night shooting at things, assuming I didn't end up passing out in the first two hours.

Close runners up: Sarah Vowell (haven't read her work, but from her interviews I think it would be a fun night), Kurt Vonnegut

10. I know you're married, but let's pretend you're not. You see a book on a potential girlfriend's nightstand that makes you run screaming out the door. What is that book?

Anything about the power of god and/or angels. Also Ayn Rand, or anything by Glen Beck (though I have no idea how I'd end up at her place if she was a Beck fan) Tropic of Cancer/Capricorn would also be a cause for concern, but I'd probably stick around.

The truth is I'd probably be more put off by a complete lack of books. People without a bookshelf in their house/apartment freak me out on a deep level.


My next course of action was to take the subject over to the bountiful Phoenix bookshelves (made less bountiful in our recent officewide cleanup). 


For his first assignment, I allowed the subjct to choose his own book, observing and judging him closely. He chose The Rook by Daniel O'Malley because someone who blurbed it compared it to Monty Python. I'll post how well he liked it here next week. In the meantime, you can check out his review tweets here

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