The caption on the glittering gold chart reads, “I want to be destroyed, fictitious.” Pink bars stretch across the page, evaluating the “level of sad” for each book listed. Toni Morrisons “Beloved” scores highest.
The colorful recommendation card, one of a lot that have been streaming through book lovers’ Twitter and Instagram feeds 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, who is described as queer, feminist and trans-owned, designed the graphics and posted them to the store’s accounts. The flowcharts are reminiscent of the candy-colored quizzes of teen magazines from the early 2000s. But instead of questions like, “Who is your ‘Twilight’ soulmate?” 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 create a set of book cards from herself. The charts seem to speak the language of the Internet, a language that meets people where they are by recognizing that literature can be overwhelming and people often don’t know where to start.
That desire – to be a guide for the overwhelmed reader – is what inspired Mx. Taylor, 32, to make the first card. A James Baldwin superfan, Mx. Taylor has an Instagram account called the James Baldwin Archive, which celebrates the author’s work. For Baldwin’s birthday on August 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 people were overwhelmed,” Mx said. said Taylor. “I’m easily overwhelmed, especially with things I think I should already know.”
The first flowchart was born. titled “Have you never read Baldwin?” the card gives readers several options: “I want to be happy” tells the reader “Go read another author”. The option ‘I find it difficult to concentrate’ leads to ‘The last interview’. The chart-topping chart garnered more than 37,000 “likes” on Twitter, extending well beyond the bookstore’s own following.
“A lot of our work in the bookstore is to have these conversations that really mimic the flowcharts,” Mx. said Taylor.
Book recommendation flow charts are not a new phenomenon, says Naomi S. Baron, emerita professor of linguistics at American University and author of “How We Read Now.” But if these charts now uniquely resonate with people, she hypothesizes that it’s because they fill a need for the specialized book recommendations readers used to get from independent bookstores.
“If these graphs are done properly, they can perform a function that is now all too rarely available,” said Professor Baron. “Because there are so few independent bookstores, No. 1. And No. 2, depending on how immunocompromised you are, two and a half years or more, you didn’t go to those bookstores and had to rely on Amazon’s ‘Maybe nice too. ‘”
She added: “I think it’s important that if you want to talk about what’s happened in recent years, we need comfort food. And these are friendly and welcoming.”
Lynn Lobash, associate director of reader services at the New York Public Library, said these flowcharts represent the kind of reading recommendation conversations she and her colleagues have every day. The charts “indicate everyday language for something that can be very difficult to talk about,” Ms. Lobash said.
Compared to more traditional reading lists, Ms. Lobash said the flowcharts are “more interactive” and honor the way readers’ tastes, feelings, and moods change. “We don’t want to read the same book over and over,” she said. “When you love something, you want to repeat that feeling of love for it.”
But will the charts get people to actually read or even buy the books? Mrs. Lobash is hopeful. “I think these flowcharts will definitely lead to reading,” she said. “People love a book recommendation.”
mx. Taylor is pleased that the charts seem to have rekindled some joy and excitement in reading and given readers an entry point into unfamiliar texts. “I just want reading to be fun for people,” says Mx. said Taylor. “I don’t care what they read. I just want them to enjoy reading.” A small job for the bookstore can’t hurt either.