The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the “Search within a book” feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn’t likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, “Customers who bought this item… also bought these books…”, and “Customers who bought books by this author… also bought books by these authors…, take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called “Early Adopters.” According to Amazon, “These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns.” The term “early adopter” has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more “classic” tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What’s interesting about the Amazon “Early Adopters” area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.
The majestic tawdriness of L'Affaire Edwards had us scrambling for literary precedents - The Scarlet Letter?, Silas Marner? - but, amid the swirl of rumors, we almost overlooked The McInerney Connection. Luckily, our trusted fellow readers at The New York Times were there with the scoop: In the mid-1980s, John Edwards' apparent paramour, Rielle Hunter - then known (somewhat less mellifluously) as Lisa Druck - ran with New York's literary Brat Pack. Indeed, Jay McInerney based a book on her. Mr. McInerney told the Times that his 1988 novel, Story of My Life, was narrated in the first person from the point of view of an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa...This revelation was apparently enough to vault Story of My Life into Amazon's Top 500 books.In an impressive feat of commitment and/or masochism, Peter Miller of the Freebird Books and Goods blog actually sat down this weekend and read Story of My Life in its entirety. His findings are fascinating and suggestive. Of an older conquest, for example, Lisa/Rielle/"Allison" tells us, "I never thought he was very good-looking, but you could tell he thought he was. He believed it so much he could actually sell other people on the idea." And: "He seemed older and sophisticated and we had great sex, so why not?"
Jack Kerouac's On the Road is known as much for its content as for the story surrounding its creation: Kerouac wrote in a frenzied three weeks, typing furiously on a continuous scroll of paper, or so the story goes. The truth is though, while there is indeed a scroll - it has toured the country for years, stopping at various museums and libraries - On the Road's creation is more complicated than that, as a recent NPR segment discussed.In fact, On the Road wasn't written in a three week rush, it was half formed in Kerouac's notebooks before ending up on the scroll and went through many drafts afterward. Furthermore, the version on the scroll isn't what we've read, as the novel evolved in future drafts and was fairly heavily edited before Viking finally published the book in 1957. Not only that, the end of the scroll is missing - eaten by a dog supposedly - so it's not entirely clear what Kerouac's original intention was for the end of the novel.Still, the On the Road scroll is a powerful thing symbolically, and it may be closer to what Kerouac intended the novel to be than what was published originally. In recognition of that, for the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, Viking (now a part of Penguin) is publishing the scroll (in book form, of course) with an ending taken from other early drafts of On the Road.For those who prefer the On the Road that we grew up reading (watered down though it may be), a standard 50th Anniversary edition is on its way as well. You can shelve it alongside the 40th Anniversary edition you bought ten years ago.
Following up on our recent post about the new Woody Allen books now in stores, The Independent has an excerpt from Mere Anarchy, Allen's collection of new work. It begins:"What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." And with that came a fiendish cackle projecting shivers up my spine every Sunday when as a mesmerised youth I sat curled around our Stromberg Carlsen in the crepuscular winter light of my progenitors' gloomy digs. The truth is, I never had the slightest idea what dark mischief gadded about even in my own pair of ventricles, until weeks back when I received a phone call from the better half at my office at Burke and Hare on Wall Street. The woman's usual steady timbre jiggled like quantum particles, and I could tell she had gone back on smokes.
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don't make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many "best of" lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson's first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain's nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They're both nearly perfect, and I don't find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I'll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don't think I'll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis' very fine Old Devils as I've been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
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I got a neat book in the mail the other day out of the blue. It's a smartly packaged collection of drawings by an artist named Don Nace. The book is called Drawn Out. Nace's strokes are like dark scratches on the page, and at first glance the drawings seemed full of tiresome, and possibly adolescent, angst. But after only a few pages I found myself quite mesmerized - drawn in, as it were - by the deceptive simplicity, the deep emotion and dark humor of the drawings. Thanks to a pointer from Ron, I see that Nace has a website where he posts a new drawing nearly every day. It's worth checking out.
Amazon reviews are kind of silly. One has to wade through lots of cranks to get to a useful review, and even then it's hard to put that much faith in a few sentences penned by a complete stranger (although I have been known to pen Amazon reviews, on occasion). Still, they undoubtedly do have an effect on sales and on peoples' perceptions of particular books, so when instances of unfair play come to light it can piss people off - like when it was revealed that authors were pseudonymously reviewing their own books (scroll down). With these same concerns in mind, I reprint this email that I received from an eagle-eyed Millions reader today.If you go to this page and scroll down to reviewer #235 (who calls him/herself "nyy") you should notice that this reviewer has not reviewed any books. Zero. I emailed Amazon about it, and just got a canned reply about how their reviewers are rated. What do you think -- a typo or a hack or something else?I have no clue, and I'm sure Amazon would explain it away as a glitch, but it does make me wonder if the customer review system is completely on the level.Update: The original New York Times article about authors reviewing their own books at Amazon.