Choose Your Own Literary Adventure
The title on the glittery gold graph reads: “I wanna be destroyed, fictionally.” Pink bars stretch up the page, evaluating the “level of sad” for each book listed. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”ranks the highest.
The colorful recommendation chart, one of many that have rippled through the Twitter and Instagram feeds of book lovers, came from a small bookstore in Madison, Wis., called A Room of One’s Own.
Fawzy Taylor, the social media and marketing manager of the store, which is described as queer, feminist and trans-owned, designed the graphics and posted them on the store’s accounts. The flow charts bring to mind the candy-colored quizzes of early 2000s teen magazines. But instead of questions like, “Who’s your ‘Twilight’ soul mate?” these charts offer a choose-your-own-adventure approach to finding your new favorite book.
They inspired a fellow bookseller, Mariah Charles, 24, of Austin, Texas, to make a set of book charts of her own. The charts seem to speak the internet’s language, one that meets people where they are by acknowledging that literature can be overwhelming, and people often don’t know where to start.
That desire — to provide a guide for the overwhelmed reader — is what inspired Mx. Taylor, 32, to make the first chart. A James Baldwin superfan, Mx. Taylor runs an Instagram account called the James Baldwin Archive, which celebrates the author’s work. For Baldwin’s birthday on Aug. 2, Mx. Taylor made a display at the bookstore, but found that customers hadn’t touched it a few days later.
“So I just assumed that people were overwhelmed,” Mx. Taylor said. “I’m easily overwhelmed, especially with things I think I should already know about.”
The first flow chart was born. Titled “Never read Baldwin before?” the chart gives readers various options: “I wanna be happy” tells the reader to “Go read a different author.” The “It is hard for me to focus” option leads to “The Last Interview.” The chart received over 37,000 “likes” on Twitter, reaching far beyond the bookstore’s own following.
“A lot of our work at the bookstore is to have these conversations that the flow charts really mimic,” Mx. Taylor said.
Book recommendation flow charts aren’t a new phenomenon, said Naomi S. Baron, an emerita professor of linguistics at American University and the author of “How We Read Now.” But if these charts are uniquely resonating with people now, she hypothesizes that it’s because they fulfill a need for the specialized book recommendations that readers used to get at independent bookstores.
“If these charts are well done, they can serve a function that’s all too rarely available now,” Professor Baron said. “Because there are so few independent bookstores, No. 1. And No. 2, depending on how immunocompromised you are, going on two and a half or more years, you haven’t been going to those bookstores and you had to rely on Amazon’s ‘You might also like.’”
She added: “I think it’s important, if you want to talk about what’s going on over the last couple of years, we need comfort food. And these are friendly and welcoming.”
Lynn Lobash, the associate director of reader services at the New York Public Library, said that these flow charts capture the kind of reading recommendation conversations that she and her colleagues have every day. The charts “give everyday language to something that can be really hard to talk about,” Ms. Lobash said.
Compared to more traditional reading lists, Ms. Lobash said the flow charts are “more interactive” and honor the way that readers’ tastes, feelings and moods change. “We don’t want to read the same book over and over again,” she said. “When you love something, you want to repeat that feeling of love for it.”
But will the charts lead people to actually read or even just buy the books? Ms. Lobash is hopeful. “I think that these flow charts will definitely lead to reading,” she said. “People love a book recommendation.”
Mx. Taylor is happy the charts seems to have reignited some joy and excitement in reading, and given readers an entry point into unfamiliar texts. “I just want reading to be fun for people,” Mx. Taylor said. “I do not care what they read. I just want them to read joyfully.” Of course, a little business for the bookstore wouldn’t hurt, either.