The favorite authors of those who should know

If you’re going to take book recommendations from strangers — or, as I more often do, from statistics derived from large sets of strangers — how do you know which strangers’ opinions to take into account? Considering all opinions indiscriminately — the “bestsellers” approach — is clearly suboptimal. It’ll point you to some good books, but also to a lot of least-common-denominator crap.

Another approach is to use a few books you personally like as a litmus test; if somebody else also likes those books, you’ll trust their taste. This is the idea behind the “people who like this book also like…” feature found on Amazon, LibraryThing, and various other book websites. This unfortunately, tends to point you to books that are already on your radar anyway; it doesn’t expand your horizons. And if you’re not really all that extraordinarily well-read, why on earth should you take your own personal favorites as the standard by which to judge everyone else’s taste? Maybe there’s a whole universe of books out there that you would love but which you’ve never heard of because they’re far removed from the kind of stuff you usually read. Getting your recommendations from other people who read the kind of stuff you do won’t help you find them.

So, here’s an alternative standard: The more books you’ve read, the more weight I give to your opinions about books. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I’d be more likely to take restaurant recommendations from someone who’s eaten at hundreds of local restaurants than from someone who’s only been to a few. The same logic goes for books. If you say Author X is one of the best you’ve ever read, that simply means more if you’ve read thousands of books rather than dozens. Of course not everyone who’s read a lot is going to have good taste, but statistically, it seems that they’d be much more likely to have good taste — to be making informed judgments — than your average joe.

So here’s what I did. LibraryThing Zeitgeist offers statistics on which users have the largest libraries. Of course not everyone who catalogues 10,000 books on LibraryThing has actually read all 10,000 of them, but still, statistically speaking, these people are likely to be very well-read. Of the users on the biggest-libraries list, I ignored anyone whose profile didn’t list any favorite authors. Of those who remained, I looked at the 50 with the largest libraries, collected their favorite authors, and saw which authors turned up the most frequently.

Among these 50 presumably well-read people, the most popular author was Shakespeare (considered a favorite by 12 out of the 50), closely followed by P. G. Wodehouse and James Joyce. If, on the other hand, we look at the most-favorited authors of the LibraryThing community at large, we find J. R. R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, and J. K. Rowling neck-and-neck for the top position (their exact ranking changes every day, but it’s always those four). This has a certain face validity. Everyone knows that Shakespeare is universally considered the greatest of the great by people who know literature, and that the Harry Potter books are notable for being read by people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading anything at all.

Without further ado, here are my results: a list of all the authors who are considered favorites by at least 5 out of 50 of the well-read users in my sample. The list is in alphabetical order, with the number of favorites in parentheses.

  1. Douglas Adams (5)
  2. Margaret Atwood (5)
  3. Jane Austen (6)
  4. Samuel Beckett (7)
  5. Jorge Luis Borges (5)
  6. Lois McMaster Bujold (8)
  7. Italo Calvino (5)
  8. Anton Chekhov (5)
  9. C. J. Cherryh (5)
  10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (5)
  11. Charles Dickens (6)
  12. Umberto Eco (5)
  13. George Eliot (5)
  14. Neil Gaiman (8)
  15. Gabriel García Márquez (6)
  16. Nikolai Gogol (6)
  17. Henry James (5)
  18. Diana Wynne Jones (8)
  19. James Joyce (10)
  20. Franz Kafka (7)
  21. Mercedes Lackey (5)
  22. H. P. Lovecraft (5)
  23. Anne McCaffrey (5)
  24. Robin McKinley (6)
  25. Vladimir Nabokov (5)
  26. Patrick O’Brian (5)
  27. George Orwell (6)
  28. Mervyn Peake (5)
  29. Terry Pratchett (7)
  30. J. K. Rowling (6)
  31. Dorothy L. Sayers (5)
  32. W. G. Sebald (5)
  33. William Shakespeare (12)
  34. Stendhal (5)
  35. Leo Tolstoy (7)
  36. Mark Twain (5)
  37. Evelyn Waugh (5)
  38. Oscar Wilde (6)
  39. P. G. Wodehouse (11)
  40. Virginia Woolf (6)

Many of these authors are also popular with the LT community at large — there’s quite a lot of overlap, actually — but the rankings tend to be very different. Among the 50 users I looked at, for example, Jane Austen is only half as popular as Shakespeare, compared to four times as popular in the general population. Of the authors on this list, the least generally popular are Stendhal, Gogol, and Sebald. (By “generally popular,” I mean considered a favorite by a large number of LibraryThing users.) The most generally popular authors who do not make this list are J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, and Kurt Vonnegut.

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