Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Discussion: Does Instagram Give Good Book Recommendations?


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One of the challenges of owning a big shelf of unread books is choosing what to read next. I want to read everything. How am I supposed to choose? What if I end up starting a book I hate and ignoring one I’d love? And, there are always new books coming out! Life is too short for this. I’m overwhelmed by choice.

Since I’m conflicted about picking books to read, I outsourced my decision to random strangers on Instagram. This is the exact type of problem Instagram polls were created to solve, right? I decided to grab two books from my shelf and let people vote on which one I should read. I was hoping that the crowd—with its infinite mob wisdom—would choose the better book for me.

Does Instagram Give Good Book Recommendations? Let’s Find Out.


Round One

First up, I chose two books that are mostly realistic but have a few fantastical elements. In Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the railroad isn’t just a metaphor. It’s a literal underground train. The characters are escaped slaves who ride the train around the country to keep ahead of the men who have been hired to capture them.

The Wicker King by K. Ancrum is a young adult contemporary novel about an abusive friendship. A teen boy develops a disease that causes him to hallucinate a fantasy kingdom. His best friend treats the hallucinations like they’re real, which leads both kids into serious legal trouble.

Honestly, I was more interested in The Underground Railroad because I love alternate history, but Instagram chose The Wicker King, so that’s what I read.

How was The Wicker King? Brilliant! I loved it. Well done, Instagram strangers. This will probably be one of my favorite novels of 2020. It’s written in vignettes, so it’s super quick to get through. It’s also a mixed-media book. There are photos, drawings, music playlists, and colored pages. It’s a unique reading experience. The side characters badly need more development, but the scarily intense relationships are so thought-provoking that I didn’t care. I will definitely stuff the author’s other novel onto my overflowing shelf of unread books.

Since my goal was to discover if Instagram gives good book recommendations, I also read The Underground Railroad. I can’t compare the books if I don’t read both. Unfortunately, my experience with The Underground Railroad was the opposite of my experience with The Wicker King. I was massively underwhelmed by it. The train is only a tiny part of the story. The structure jumps between characters, time periods, and settings so often that I didn’t have time to connect with anyone. I struggled to finish this book and considered giving up on it several times.


Round one result: Instagram chose the better book.


Round Two

It wouldn’t be scientific to do an experiment once, so I grabbed two more books and chucked them in a poll. This time, I let Instagram choose between a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a year and one that showed up in my mailbox that morning.

I had actually read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman before. It was a middle school favorite of mine. It’s the first book in a science fiction series about kidnapped children and people who can open doors to parallel worlds.

In The Unlikely Event is a Judy Blume book for adults. Usually, she writes for kids. The premise is based on events that happened in her real life. The story is set in the 1950s and follows the residents of a small town near an airport. Planes keep crashing in their town. The residents are trying to live their lives, but there’s always the threat of another plane crash looming over them.

I was more excited about The Golden Compass because I’d just finished the TV show. (Which is excellent, by the way. The actors are talented, and the shape-shifting animals look as realistic as magical shape-shifting animals can look. I highly recommend watching it.) I was thrilled when Instagram chose The Golden Compass for me to read.


I’m pleased to report that I still love The Golden Compass! The beginning is excruciatingly slow because there’s a ton of world building that happens, but the slowness didn’t put me off because the world is fascinating. It’s arctic-inspired and full of animals, creepy science, and characters who come from a variety of cultures. The action starts halfway through the book. Once it starts, it doesn’t let up. There’s always a new deadly problem for the characters to solve. As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to reread the sequels. It’s awesome when a childhood favorite holds up to adult scrutiny.

I was slightly less thrilled with Judy Blume’s In The Unlikely Event. The plot is thought-provoking. It’s interesting to see how each character responds to the stress of the plane crashes. I think there are too many characters. It took me a while to remember how they’re all related, and I was often tempted to skim to get back to my favorite characters’ perspectives. They didn’t all interest me equally. This isn’t a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not as memorable as The Golden Compass. 

Round two result: Instagram chose the better book.


Round Three

Since the first two rounds went well, I decided to give the polls another shot. I was in the mood to read some survivalist stuff. I gave Instagram the choice between The Hunger by Alma Katsu and Alabama Moon by Watt Key. I was excited for both of them and didn’t have a preference.

The Hunger is the story of the Donner Party, but with witches and supernatural zombie-wolf-human creatures. It’s an alternate history novel with a big dash of horror. There’s something stalking the Donner Party through the mountains, and it’s hungry.

Alabama Moon is also a survival story, but it’s quite different from The Hunger. All the monsters are human. Ten-year-old Moon has spent his entire life in the Alabama wilderness. After his father dies, he runs into problems with the local constable and goes on a quest to discover why his father abandoned society to raise his family in the woods.

Instagram chose The Hunger in the poll. That sounded good to me.


I loved The Hunger. The beginning meanders a little because there are a ton of people in the Donner Party who need to be introduced to the reader. The pace wasn’t slow enough to lose my attention, though. I’m fascinated by the Donner Party and have read a lot of nonfiction about them. (For nonfiction, I recommend The Indifferent Stars Above and Cannibalism.) I think it’s brave for an author to write a supernatural horror story about real people. I’d be too paranoid about offending their descendants. If you like history or horror, I recommend picking this book up. It’s a brave, creepy, witchy, surprising twist on a familiar tale.

Alabama Moon is very different from The Hunger. It’s slightly hilarious. The main character, Moon, thinks he can solve life’s problems by punching annoying people. I believe Twitter would call that #mood. If you love books like Hatchet, you’ll enjoy Alabama Moon. It’s an easy middlegrade read with nonstop action. My only criticism is the police officer character. I don't understand what motivates his behavior. He puts in months of effort and destroys his body and life to hurt a ten-year-old. It doesn't seem worth it. I don’t think I would have noticed that stuff as a kid, though. I would have been swept up in the fast pace and in the lives of the innovative young characters.

Which book won this round? I don’t know! I had fun reading them both. They’re both well-written and surprising. If I was forced to choose a favorite, I’d pick The Hunger because it blends historical events with supernatural weirdness. I feel like it’s riskier and more imaginative than Alabama Moon.


Round three result: Instagram chose the better book.



So, does Instagram give good book recommendations? They sure worked out for me. I read some excellent novels.

I have a feeling that my Instagram polls are similar to the Goodreads Choice Awards. When you let the public vote on books, they pick the covers they recognize from social media. The book that wins the votes will be the book with the best marketing and not necessarily the book with the most literary merit. Luckily for me, the popular books turned out to be great this time.


Talk to me: How do you decide which book to read next? Have you ever let someone else decide which books you read? How did it go? Have you ever read a book because it’s popular on social media?


  1. I am really impressed by this. A very interesting experiment you conducted. I wonder if it's people understanding your tastes or just the books were better.

  2. I've gotten so many great book recommendations from Instagram, but I don't think I've ever tried polling my own followers to choose my next book. I might try that sometime soon! I feel like our bookish followers follow us because they like our taste in books, so it makes sense that they'd be good at helping us make choices.

  3. Your Insta friends have good taste! Maybe I'll give this a try one day.

  4. Interesting experiment! I'm glad it turned out well for you! I don't know if I would be brave enough to try it. I have a huge contrarian streak so I would probably dislike the book Instagram chose just because it was the one that was chosen! Similar to how I disliked all the books I had to read in school because I *had* to read them but now I enjoy those I've re-read.

  5. How fun! I agree that most people would probably choose the more "popular" book, but most of the time those are popular for a good reason! Glad they all worked out!

  6. Wow, this was so interesting to read! I do read books because of the reviews I read on the blogs that I visit, but I am very much a mood reader and I also read books for reviewing so these two factors pretty much determine what I will end up reading.

  7. A new and unusual way to choose your next read! Glad it has worked out well!

  8. I like reading books that have buzz or are being bantered around places but also just like solid literary fiction reads. I do read thru Goodread reviews to get a sense whether to pick up a book ... though some reviews are way off! I think people stick with genres they like.

  9. What a fun experiment!! I love that Instagram steered you so very well. Hope they keep it up!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  10. Hi AJ! I didn't even know you could do that.... I'm starting to think that everyone over 40 should be offered a course or something on social media and blogging platforms. Most of us were out of school before we even had our first cellphone.

    This was a brilliant post and I am so interested now. How do you do it? Feel like giving a crash course to a few geriatrics?

    Hope you had a good week!

    Elza Reads

  11. This is such a fun post! I definitely might need to take inspiration from it. XD I'm so glad you loved The Wicker King! That was such a fantastic book. The Hunger is another one I've been dying to read on your recommendation!

  12. Honestly AJ Instagram amde me discover tons of books I would never have read before! I am now in book clubs there and it's so good to chat about books with others.

  13. I will admit that most of the book I read are books that are popular on social media 😂 However, I don't rely on Instagram too often for recommendations because a lot of the people I follow tend to recommend the same popular books all the time that I have no interest in reading.

  14. What a fun experiment and that's amazing that one of them is now your favorite novel of the year!
    Jen @ Star-Crossed Book Blog

  15. This is such a fun post and I love that your Insta followers didn't let you down with their book recs.

  16. This is SO FUN! I love that you did this, because frankly, I have always wondered too! I am also super glad that you enjoyed The Hunger as much as I did! Also reminded me how much I need to read The Wicker King! Glad to know we can trust randos on social media 😂

  17. Ooh what a fun post, I love it! I'm happy you ended up with great choices :) I really need to give The Wicker King a try :)

  18. What a fun project! I have to admit, I wouldn't have expected this to work as well it did :)