I tried “the Netflix of books.” It was not the Netflix of books.
Maybe it was Oscar Wilde that said, “Everything in the world is about tech except tech. Tech is about power.” Even books, which some readers fetishize for the analog experience, are digitized now; and in the next logical step after Kindles and Amazon, tech-hungry readers can optimize their reading habits using a new website: BingeBooks. According to TechCrunch, BingeBooks “wants to become the Netflix channel surfing platform for book lovers, designed to help you find the next great book based on what you have previously read.” BingeBooks purportedly distinguishes itself from existing platforms like Goodreads through its AI, “Marlowe,” which can analyze books and make recommendations to readers. Originally, Marlowe was designed to evaluate drafts of books and provide constructive feedback; now, she (BingeBooks publicity refers to Marlowe as female) is being used for readers rather than writers. Said Alessandra Torre, CEO of BingeBooks, “BingeBooks is really focused on reader discovery.”
(Side note: if you’re confused about the Binge part of BingeBooks, you’re not alone. At first I thought it was because users can now spend all the time they previously spent scouring for book recommendations, uh, binging books, but it is apparently in reference to users’ ability to “binge” the first chapters of books directly on the BingeBooks site, which features over 38,000 books.)
I typically get my book recommendations passively, from friends or Twitter or best-of lists; it’d be nice to find books I wouldn’t otherwise stumble across, so I signed up for BingeBooks beta.
When I clicked “Sign Up,” the site immediately took me to a slide that asked what I liked to read. I could choose from categories such as “Bestsellers (What’s hot),” “Romance,” “Horror,” “Cozy Mysteries,” “Young adult,” and “Best of Young Adult,” opening my eyes to the possibility of a reader who likes Young adult but hates Best of Young Adult. As my categories, I chose “Bestsellers (What’s hot),” “General Fiction,” and the mysterious category “Women’s Fiction.”
I thought I would be taken to a slide that asked me to select books I enjoy reading, so the AI could work its magic. Instead, I was asked to “pick a tag” for my profile out of the following categories: Audiobook Buff. Binge Reader. Book Smarty. Bookish. Certified Book Nut. Fiction Aficionado. BingeBooks Fan. Official Book Lover. Proud Bookworm. Ready to Binge. Story Enthusiast. Vacation Reader. Well Read. I wasn’t so sure about these categories—it seemed like there could be overlap between, for instance, Official Book Lover and Proud Bookworm. And if we’re here at BingeBooks, aren’t we all Ready to Binge? I thought about picking “Story Enthusiast”—aren’t we all?—but went with “Fiction Aficionado.”
Then I was directed to my main profile, where I could see my “Reviews/Comments” (none, as of yet), “Hearted” (things I have hearted), “Following,” and “Followers.” This hammers home that BingeBooks is meant to be a social network; the interface looks like the less sleek cousin of Letterboxd, complete with a watchlist-like feature where users can add books to a “Want to Read” list.
I could also add books to a “Have Read” list, so I did: I added My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen, Homesick for Another World, Severance, and You Too Could Have A Body Like Mine to a list, in the hopes that the AI would recommend me biting, thoughtful contemporary fiction. (Was this the elusive “Women’s Fiction” category?) A non-AI recommender would probably direct me to The New Me or some George Saunders. But no recommendations appeared. Even when I clicked on a single book, no recommendations for similar books appeared. Where was the AI? How could I get my recommendations? The tabs at the top of the site: “Genres,” “Discover,” “My Reads,” “Audio,” and “Lists.” Links at the bottom of the site include: “Welcome! Start here,” “About,” “FAQ,” “Talk Guidelines,” “Book Recommendations,” and “Popular Pages.”
I clicked on “Welcome! Start here.” It suggested I “start bingeing,” “start collecting titles I like,” and “start interacting.”
I clicked on the “About” tab, and it said, “More than a one-night binge. We hope you’ll return to BingeBooks over and over.”
I clicked on “Discover,” and then “Authors,” and I was taken to a page that said, “Sorry, couldn’t find that!” with a sweet cartoon of a bespectacled boy struggling under the weight of all his books, with locks of his hair falling out into the wind.
I clicked on “Book Recommendations,” but it was a page that told me how to be kind when recommending books on my page: Keep your cool. Be respectful. Tell it like it is. There was a picture of a man crossing both his fingers, with the caption, “Tell it like it is and stand behind your words.” Below, there was a fake review by a user named Alex Bill, which said, “I really think your writing is terrible and couldn’t be bothered reading your books. Don’t quit your day job,” as an example of how not to review a book.
The FAQ provided the closest thing to an answer. In response to, “Who decides which titles get included on your home page or genre landing pages?” the copy said, “Our team of fiction-loving authors and editors. In the future, we’ll be aided by Marlowe, our A.I. book expert.” So—this version of BingeBooks is a beta version without the functionality that purportedly sets it apart from other similar sites. Without the AI, there is no personalized recommendation system; BingeBooks is more of a way to catalog books you read and be more cognizant of your reading habits. Like, you know, Goodreads.
After this discovery, I “binged” the first part of Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This was my best experience on the site. This function actually sets BingeBooks apart from competitors: BingeBooks is a place where you can read the first chapters of many books on one site, which is particularly useful right now when bookstores are shut down. As it turns out, the “Binge” function of BingeBooks is its best feature (even though the font and spacing of the bingeable excerpts renders them not particularly readable). But this is not a website I want to spend time on. After the clunky interface, explanatory copy, and contradictory messaging, I need a PurgeBooks.
The Book Recommendations tab tells me to Be Aware: You’re building a reputation. Your recommendations will remain live on BingeBooks for years to come. This seems overly optimistic, but who knows; maybe I’ll be kicking myself in a year when the AI launches and we’re all “bingeing” daily. I’d like to see that success arc, as I’m a Story Enthusiast. But I’ll point out that I am also a Fiction Aficionado.