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BookBrowse's Read-Alikes and Nancy Pearl's Rule of Four

"When we want a book exactly like the one we just finished reading, what we really want is to recreate that pleasurable experience--the headlong rush to the last page, the falling into a character's life, the deeper understanding we've gotten of a place or a time, or the feeling of reading words that are put together in a way that causes us to look at the world differently. We need to start thinking about what it is about a book that draws us in, rather than what the book is about."
Nancy Pearl, on The Four Doors to Reading

Readers often ask us how BookBrowse's Read-Alikes are selected. Companies like Netflix, Amazon, and GoodReads use complex algorithms to generate recommendations, so I think lots of readers assume we do, too. Our method is a lot less high-tech (actually, no-tech), and far more personal: we pick them by hand. But what criteria do we use to select them? When we read about librarian Nancy Pearl's Four Doors to Reading (also known as the Rule of Four), we realized she was pretty much describing how we think about our Read-Alikes. Pearl asserts that "all works of fiction and narrative nonfiction are broadly made up of four experiential elements: story, character, setting, and language." She refers to these elements as doorways, some of them larger or smaller depending on the dominant element of each book:

A book with story as its biggest doorway is one that readers describe as a page-turner, a book that they can't put down because they desperately want to discover what happens next.

A book with character as its biggest doorway is a book in which readers feel so connected with the characters that when the book is over they feel they've lost someone dear to them.

Readers of novels in which setting is most prominent say things like "I felt like I was there," or, as one man told me, "When I finished Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, I immediately made plans to go to New Mexico -- I had to see for myself where it took place."

A book in which language is the major doorway leads readers to utter sentences like "I read more slowly because I wanted to savor the language" or "I'm not even sure what the book is about, but I loved the way the author wrote."

Pearl talks about her dream of making a pie chart for every book in the world that would represent the ratios of that book's four main elements (story, character, setting, language), so that you could easily find books with pie charts that match up to your favorites. But at BookBrowse, we also realize that different people can love the same book for very different reasons. I loved Cutting For Stone because I was dazzled by Abraham Verghese's gorgeous prose, and the deeply personal voice of the main character. But others loved it primarily because it immersed them in a distant country; others still will be drawn in by the medical subject matter, or the page-turning sweep of its many-layered story. This is why we offer Read-Alikes based on multiple elements of each book, offering something for everyone. Take a look at the Read-Alikes for Cutting for Stone; a reader like me will be most interested in Away or Everything Is Illuminated, because even though their settings and characters are worlds apart from Cutting for Stone, each of these books is written in a style of prose that has a similarly sumptuous feel, and a main characters with a similarly intimate voice. Beneath the Lion's Gaze and How to Read the Air are for readers who want to return to Ethiopia's revolution; Better and Mountains Beyond Mountains are for readers who want to read about sensitive surgeons or humanitarian medicine; Sea of Poppies and The Poisonwood Bible are for readers who want to be swept away by another epic, faraway tale. Think about how different Pearl's pie-charts would look if drawn by each kind of reader:


I think the pie-charts say much more about the individual reader than they do about a book, don't you? So while I love the pie-chart-for-every-book idea for its accessibility and broad reach, and I admire Netflix's million-dollar algorithm, my money's still on the handpicked-by-a-human recommendation – from friends, booksellers, bloggers, and of course, BookBrowse.

Which of the four elements - story, character, setting and language - are most important to you? Please take our quick poll or comment below. (This poll is now closed, the results can be viewed here)

You'll find Read-Alikes linked to each featured book, and you can also search and browse our Read-Alikes page for book-to-book and author-to-author Read-Alikes.

--- Lucia Silva

Excellent article on the four constitutive elements of a novel (or any work of fiction for that matter) and I was intrigued to see the results of your poll, where story and character take 75% or more of the votes, and language takes the least.

No doubt that if we were discussing films, the setting would rate higher than here, where we're focused on written fiction. One could however take exception to the distinction between "story" and "character", because in the better novels (in my humble opinion) character is what drives the story - hence they're indistinguishable.

Be that as it may, this remains a very interesting approach to evaluating books - many thanks for sharing and setting up the poll!
# Posted By Claude Nougat | 7/16/12 5:29 AM
I just tried this feature to see what would come up. I chose one of my favorite books, and was delightfully surprised to find that many of the recommended books were ones that I have read and also enjoyed. This gives me great confidence in the feature, and I have added other books from the recommendations to my list of books to read. Thank you!
# Posted By Elyse | 2/29/20 8:15 PM
Hi Elyse
I'm so glad to hear you say that! Our editors and reviewers put a lot of thought into choosing the readalikes because we're not just interested in linking, say, thrillers to thrillers, or books in a a particular setting to others in the same setting, as algorithms do. Instead we're also looking to make intuitive connections, often across genres, because we feel that reading is a journey, and every book is one more step along the way.
# Posted By Davina, BookBrowse editor | 2/29/20 8:48 PM
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