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.
We are leaving for Chicago very soon, and with no place to live as of yet, I do not know when I will be blogging again... not for a couple of weeks, probably. So, I will leave you with something, though not book-related in any way, that you may find quite useful:One of my favorite beverages is the Bloody Mary: vodka and spicy, peppery tomato juice poured over some ice cubes and garnished with celery and maybe a wedge of lime. It kind of makes you thirsty just thinking about it, doesn't it? Me too. It reminds me of college, in fact. At the University of Virginia daytime cocktail parties (especially on football weekends) are a mainstay. It was at these parties where I discovered my taste for the Bloody Mary. I also discovered that of the many adult beverages available to us, the Bloody Mary is one of the few that can't just be consumed anywhere, at any time. You will look silly if you order a Bloody Mary at your local pub on a Friday night and you probably won't enjoy it very much either. The peculiar thing about the Bloody Mary is that there is most certainly a time and place for them. Over the years, I set out to determine exactly what those times and places are. If you have been nearby while I've been drinking a Bloody Mary, you have probably heard my set of rules. Still, I worry that I might forget them one day, so I've decided to immortality them in this here blog. I submit now, for your consideration, The Bloody Mary Rules. Enjoy!The Rule of Thumb: No matter where you are, you may drink as many Bloody Marys as you like between dawn and noon. After noon, you may have Bloody Mary as your first drink of the day, but afterwards you must move on to other adult beverages. After sunset, you may not drink any Blood Marys.The Codicils (Or exceptions to The Rule of Thumb, if you like. At any rate, this is where things get interesting): Irrespective of the time of day, you MAY drink Bloody Marys (as many as you like):1. On airplanes1a. At the airport bar, but ONLY if your plane has been delayed2. At wedding receptions3. At horse races4. While bowling5. And, finally, on boats
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Next, non-fiction. People seem to be very excited about a new book by the French philosopher (and best-selling author in Europe) Bernard Henri Levy. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is both a journalistic account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter and a deeper look at the rift between extremist Islam and the rest of the world. Imagine the musings of a philosopher detective retracing the final steps of a man he has never met. In other news, I proudly voted in an election that is sure to be a footnote in the history books. I did not vote for Arnold for personal reasons: I happen to be a rabid celebrity-ist, as in I discriminate against celebrities and, by law, I don't think they should be allowed to hold public office. Just because someone appears regularly on television and movie screens, in magazines and on billboards does not mean they are qualified to do anything other than look pretty and pretend to be another person. But, of course, this is California and it is important to have leaders who are sufficiently glamorous representing the extremely glamorous populace. Needless to say, California is a peculiar and maddening place, progenitor and betrayer of national hopes and dreams, which, in so many words, is what Joan Didion is saying in her book, Where I Was from. My hope is that the reason this book continues to sell so well is that it is people's way of taking this election with a grain of salt. Now I'm going to do something a bit hypocritical, watch as I go from celebrity-bashing to the Rolling Stones. But what can I say? The Rolling Stones, as The Beatles did a few years ago, have put together a beautiful and comprehensive coffee table book called According to the Rolling Stones, and people are buying it like crazy.Finally, a couple of paperbacks to mention: Dan Brown, like John Grisham before him, is using his huge breakthrough hit, The Da Vinci Code to sell his previous books which had, up until now, been ignored. Since everyone in the world seems to have read the Da Vinci Code by now, folks looking to keep the good times rolling have been buying an earlier book of his, Angels & Demons in droves. Also big in paperback is the recently released collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called How to Be Alone. I seem to be one of the few who hold this opinion, but Franzen's non-fiction bugs the heck out of me. The Corrections, however, is a must read.
I ran a piece in last week's New York Observer reviewing William Goetzmann's intellectual history, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism. A dry title, I know, and somewhat dry inside the cover, too. Goetzmann is near the end of a long academic career and the book felt a little like cleaning out the closet. Still, I found it an interesting read. There's a novel synthesis running through all the facts and anecdotes, one that I think is particularly useful in our time:There were few things America's charter citizens agreed on, but one was that the government should be agnostic about what makes the good life. That neutrality left the field open for utopian projects like Brook Farm and Modern Times, and makes room today for everything from mega-churches to television ads that hawk deodorant as a lifestyle. In fact, Beyond the Revolution argues, the entire frenzy of American enterprise from the founding to the present can be understood as an effort to invent, peddle, connive or discern, a model for how to choose and what to value in country where anything is possible.
Goodreads is a vibrant and feisty place - if you can even call an online community a place. Its slogan boasts, "it's what your friends are reading!" and perhaps that's true: the site's more dedicated members are so busy posting the books they've read, and want to read, or are currently reading, that you might assume they no longer have time to actually read. But the opposite is true for me - since joining the site, and becoming obsessed with it, I've been reading quite voraciously. Chalk it up to a pure-hearted love of sharing my thoughts about literature; or to some illusory sense of accountability ("Everyone's breathlessly awaiting my opinion of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!"); or to my desire to read a novel as soon as it's lauded by a friend ("Wow, Katie gave 5 stars to The Dud Avocado, I must see what's so great about it!"). Or maybe it's just a primitive lust to build up my roster of books read, to assert myself as the most bookish.Goodreads allows you to organize your books in self-created bookshelves (mine include "Theory" and "Tried but Failed to Read"), and to see if you and a friend have similar reading tastes (apparently, my taste is 100% similar to the aforementioned Katie's, which is just creepy). Most importantly, the site lets you rate books on a star system, one star signifying "I didn't like it," and five signifying, "It was amazing." The fact that there isn't an "I hated this piece of crap" option suggests that Goodreads is generally promoting a positive reaction to books. You can, however, say whatever you want in your reviews, and your friends can respond as they wish in the comments section. On my page, for instance, there's a 33-comment thread that covers Jonathan Lethem (the original subject of my review), Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Michael Chabon, hipsters, blonde women, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford (that is, who's hotter), Rushmore, irony, Colson Whitehead, and more. Another friend's two-star rating (denoting "It was okay") of On The Road caused another friend to comment, "You also gave two stars to The Stranger, you tool. For that I should bypass this comment box and toss a flaming bag of shit at your house." This, unsurprisingly, led to a heated ping-ponging of comments. My, my, reading is more fun than I thought.I'd say more, but I must get back to that Junot Diaz novel - which is definitely already 4 stars-good, if not 5.
The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad's How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble "Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work." It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What's refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn't attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad's meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we've invited Ms. Hustad to give us some "Usefulness Training" based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She'll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we'll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.
The New Yorker pays tribute to Leonard Michaels this week by printing a story of his... a terriffic story called "Cryptology." The weird timing of all this Michaels stuff has got me thinking that I really ought to read some more of his work. I will have to look around for some of his books. Scroll down a few entries to see more on Michaels. Also in the New Yorker James Wood reviews God's Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. This is a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is not the sort of subject matter that I am necessarily drawn to, but it has been incredibly well reviewed by some rather prestegious publications and reviewers: Jonathan Yardley and Christopher Hitchens to name a couple. If any of that looks interesting check out the first chapter.