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Posts Tagged ‘You May Also Like’

I read about You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice in a Blog U post by Joshua Kim. Kim wrote that the book made him ponder the way we select books, which is an interesting question for librarians to consider. He also made the point that the book illuminates how bad we are at explaining our own tastes and at choosing what we’ll like and I thought, “That’s me!”

I’m the person who can never declare definitively my “favorite” of anything — color, book, movie, ice-cream flavor, etc. So well developed was my ability to see the merits of more than one side of an argument or more than one type of anything that my father was convinced when I was in college I was going to be brainwashed in an airport while listening politely to some cult member’s point of view.

I’ve had both good friends and my future husband shake their heads at my music collection (back when said collection was on cassette, and radio stations and the Columbia House music club were my only option for hearing about bands). A friend referred to me as a “musical slut;” the future husband said I was a musical disaster. He seemed frustrated that I appeared to like completely disparate stuff, to “have no taste in music,” when his own tastes were fairly well defined.

It turns out there’s a term for this in the age of the Internet. In You may Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt notes that sociologists Richard Peterson and Albert Simkus call it “omnivorousness,” and that it’s newfangled cultural elitism. One’s eclectic tastes signal status, as liking a particular class of things (for example, being an opera buff) once did. These days my strange CD collection would gain me points if I was trying to impress hipsters or highbrows. I didn’t find this very comforting. I’m not sure what’s worse, to have my taste in music described as weird or elitist. I think I’ll stick with being a weirdo.

You May Also Like is full of social science studies, past and present (I really liked the historical perspectives), observations about modern shopping and listening patterns, and interesting facts about the psychology of choice. Some of it made me squirm — how many times have I said here on bookconscious that I tend to be skeptical of prize-winning books? Turns out that’s a documented phenomena — ratings of books on Amazon drop after they win a prize. (One possible explanation is that people who wouldn’t normally read a book like the prizewinner are drawn to it because of the prize and its publicity, so those readers were never a good match for the book and are disappointed).

Vanderbilt’s writing style made it hard for me to read this book before bed. I finished it yesterday afternoon and found I took much more in. His tone is a bit scholarly — not off-puttingly, but not ideal for when I’m at my sleepiest. I admire someone who totally geeks out over his or her subject, and I think Vanderbilt does. With 63 pages of end notes for 226 pages of text, there are often 5-6 references per page. Vanderbilt’s voice isn’t as familiar or conversational as AJ Jacobs or Bill Bryson, but he does relate some of what he learns to his own experience.

If you like your nonfiction well researched and well written, you’ll like this book. I learned about things I want to follow up on — like Forgotify, a site dedicated to the millions of songs never played on Spotify. I’ll try to notice the subtle clues that an online review may not be authentic and I’ll be more aware of Vanderbilt’s astute point that even if a review is “real” it may be “subject to distortion and biases.” And I’ll be paying closer attention to my own likes and dislikes and those of my friends and family, thinking more critically about how those form and change.

As Vanderbilt concludes, “Trying to explain, or understand, any one person’s particular tastes — including one’s own — is always going to be a maddeningly elusive and idiosyncratic enterprise. But the way we come to have the tastes we do can often be understood through a set of psychological and social dynamics that function much the same, from the grocery store to the art museum. The more interesting question is not what we like but why we like.” That could be an endlessly fascinating thing to explore, now that I’ve read You May Also Like.

 

 

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