Antibooks

When I was young I knew that dog and cat, male and female, and summer and winter were opposites, but I never figured out whether the opposite of salt was pepper or sugar.

This was childish thinking, of course — the only true opposites are “a” and “not-a”. Be that as it may, there exists a website allowing you find the “opposite” of any moderately popular book (though to my knowledge this particular function is now unavailable, or available only to members). While I had access to the site I got some interesting results which I think are worth putting on record.

LibraryThing allowed people to catalog their personal libraries in a publicly-accessible database, and from this database it was possible to find out, not only which books are most likely to be found together in one library, but also which books are least likely to be found together. For example, if half the libraries include Book A and half include Book B, the books would randomly appear together in a library 25% of the time. But if you use the Antibook function, for any given book you can find out which book deviates furthest from the expected 25%, either in the positive or in the negative direction.

The positive searches are usually pretty banal — people who own Bellow’s Herzog are likely to own other books by Bellow as well as books by Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, et al. But the negative searche which allows you to find the anti-book for any given book —  the book which is most unexpectedly absent from libraries in which the first book is found – can be very revealing.

Of course, the anti-book pairs can also be pretty banal. It doesn’t tell you much about The Federalist Papers to find that its anti-book is A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, or about the Herodotus to learn that his anti-book is Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging. It’s slightly more interesting to discover that the opposite of Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles is The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but these two books are obviously intended to appeal to two incompatible demographics.

But it gets a little more interesting when you look at Victorian literature. I wouldn’t have guessed that the anti-book of Great Expectations would be Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs and that the antithesis of Far From the Madding Crowd would be Dan Savage’s Skipping Toward Gomorrah, but neither of these oppositions is exactly surprising. But why should Quine’s Word and Object be the antithesis of Little Women? And what is Quine doing in the company of Rheingold and Savage?

There are several antitheses which I find especially satisfying. As an admirer of Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth, I was delighted to find that its anti-book is Atlas Shrugged. And what better opposite to Chicken Soup for the Soul could there be than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? I’m sure that both Malcolm Gladwell and Ellen Morgan would be pleased to learn that the anti-Tipping Point is Sisterhood is Powerful.

Finally, one antithetical pair puzzles me. Why should The Harry Potter Box Set and Lake Wobegon Days be antithetical? What are the two white, middle class, middlebrow demographics that love one of these, but not the other?

Surely there’s a big think piece here – Tom Friedman, David Brooks, where are you?

Author: John Emerson

An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur.

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