Boulders And Software

When a book editor gets a vacation, or better yet, stops being a book editor and gets a vacation, the possibilities before him would make Sisyphus let go of his rock and skip off.

I am that former book editor who, as you read this, is on vacation. After pushing hundreds of books up the hill of book reviewing for three years, this week I could simply walk through a bookstore and read for the fun of it.

Confronting 10,000 titles, I offer one piece of advice: Avoid "agent software." Agent software is a computer program, usually online, but also available in some bookstores, designed to help browsers find a book that is just right for them. The software holds information from multiple entries about genre, period, and author, and correlates this information to that most intangible value: taste. After you type in reading preferences and then respond to some questions about specific books and authors, the program sorts through its database and recommends a book.

I tried the "BookMatcher" program that amazon.com offers on its Web site. My book match was not made in heaven. The program recommended two Stephen King novels. (I would sit in a mosquito-laden swamp croaking with frogs before reading Stephen King. Come to think of it, that would probably make a good Stephen King plot.)

Carol Gigliotti, of Ohio State University, in a New York Times article on computer-generated matching, makes the crucial distinction: Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and choosing books calls for wisdom.

Agent software is a marketing tool, not a philosopher king. But then I already knew what I wanted to read: "Nixon in Winter," by Monica Crowley (Alfred A. Knopf).

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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