What books does ‘Try Books!’ like?

Primo Levi: Hors de concours?

We have been asked which books Try Books! has actually liked most, leaving aside matters of explanation and prediction.  The data we have is here.

At first sight, the easiest thing to do is just to take the mean for each book.  This is a little optimistic:  on the one hand, one is assuming that the difference between ‘1’ and ‘2’ is the same as the difference between ‘7’ and ‘8’ (interval scale), and on the other hand it may be that some people consistently give higher or lower scores than others.  One can also use the median, which does at least do away with the need for assuming an interval scale, but still leaves one vulnerable to who has rated which book.

Another way of looking at the problem is to see how a book compares with others marked by the same person, and treat the comparison as a kind of match.  So imagine 5 people have rated both book A and book B, 3 people have marked A higher than B, one has given the same mark, and two have marked B higher than A.  Then A has a score of 3.5/5 = 0.7 from this ‘match’ and B has a score of 1.5/5 = 0.3.  One can combine the scores over all the ‘matches’ each book has ‘played’ in to come up with an overall score for that book.

Two problems remain here:

i)  a book may have ‘played’ in matches with books that are significantly better or worse than the average, this decreasing or increasing its score;

ii)  we are assuming that a reader’s judgments are consistent over time; that is, a ‘9’ now can be directly compared with an ‘9’ a year ago.

The second of these is in principle unavoidable.  We can tackle the first by using a kind of rating system, so that a book gets more credit for ‘playing’ a stronger ‘opponent’.

The table below shows the RATING, SCORE, MEDIAN and MEAN for those books where sufficient data was available.

TABLE 1: RATING, SCORE, MEDIAN AND MEAN

RATING SCORE MEDIAN MEAN
If This Is a Man / The Truce 94.63 0.95 9 8.92
Skin Lane 86.12 0.86 8.75 8.63
The Boy with the Topknot 83.43 0.85 9 8.64
A Prayer for Owen Meany 77.16 0.77 8.75 8.38
This Thing of Darkness 72.98 0.73 8 8.2
The Help 67.47 0.7 8 8.05
Bad Science 66.55 0.66 7 7.29
Brooklyn 63.83 0.65 7.25 7.13
Family Romance 63.02 0.64 7.75 7.44
The Master and Margarita 62.66 0.63 7 6.5
Star of the Sea 60.35 0.6 7.75 6.75
Death and the Penguin 59.25 0.58 7.5 7.31
Moby-Dick 56.1 0.54 6.5 6.5
After You’d Gone 54.87 0.53 7 7.33
American Wife 53.51 0.54 7.5 6.8
One Day 52.53 0.56 7.5 7.41
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle 49.95 0.52 7 7.29
Norwegian Wood 48.87 0.47 7 6.94
The Reluctant Fundamentalist 48.29 0.48 7 7
Complicity 47.01 0.46 6.5 6.39
The Shadow Of The Wind 44.3 0.45 6.5 6.61
The Story of Forgetting 43.56 0.43 6 6.34
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 43.55 0.43 5.5 5.17
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 42.2 0.4 5.25 5.42
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher 36.92 0.38 6.25 6.08
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling 35.98 0.38 6 6.2
The Monkey Wrench Gang 34.74 0.38 6 5.81
Legend of a Suicide 31.43 0.32 6 6.28
In Search of the Missing Eyelash 25.58 0.23 5 4.78
The Fall of the Imam 21.72 0.2 6 5.4
Me Cheeta 12.88 0.11 5 4.5
The Resurrectionist 12.08 0.1 2.75 3.42
Human Traces 11.66 0.12 5 4.63

It may be simpler to consider the ranks given by the different measures:

TABLE 2:  RANK ACCORDING TO RATING, SCORE, MEDIAN AND MEAN

RATING SCORE MEDIAN MEAN
If This Is a Man / The Truce 1 1 1 1
Skin Lane 2 2 3 3
The Boy with the Topknot 3 3 1 2
A Prayer for Owen Meany 4 4 3 4
This Thing of Darkness 5 5 5 5
The Help 6 6 5 6
Bad Science 7 7 13 11
Brooklyn 8 8 12 13
Family Romance 9 9 7 7
The Master and Margarita 10 10 13 19
Star of the Sea 11 11 7 17
Death and the Penguin 12 12 9 10
Moby-Dick 13 14 19 19
After You’d Gone 14 16 13 9
American Wife 15 15 9 16
One Day 16 13 9 8
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle 17 17 13 11
Norwegian Wood 18 19 13 15
The Reluctant Fundamentalist 19 18 13 14
Complicity 20 20 19 21
The Shadow Of The Wind 21 21 19 18
The Story of Forgetting 22 23 23 22
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 23 22 28 29
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 24 24 29 27
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher 25 25 22 25
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling 26 27 23 24
The Monkey Wrench Gang 27 26 23 26
Legend of a Suicide 28 28 23 23
In Search of the Missing Eyelash 29 29 30 30
The Fall of the Imam 30 30 23 28
Me Cheeta 31 32 30 32
The Resurrectionist 32 33 33 33
Human Traces 33 31 30 31

Discussion

The different methods here give pretty consistent results.  The biggest differences observed are for The Master and Margarita (up 9 places for RATING as against MEAN) and One Day (down 8 places).

It is clear that people make If This Is A Man the best book here–the question is whether it should be judged on the same basis as the others.  One could also object to Skin Lane on the grounds that it is an earlier book I just happened to have recorded the data for.  That would leave The Boy with the Topknot as uncontroversial champion.

Sathnam Sanghera: Uncontroversial

As for the books at the bottom of the list, some of them are just not very good…

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