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EVERY MAN HIS OWN CRITIC

The Culture of Amazon.com

12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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So you want to buy a book. Maybe you're too busy to stop off at the local bookshop. There's a funny moment in Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, the charming 1970 collection of letters between a New York writer and the London bookstore manager from whom she would order books by mail, in which Hanff explains that England only seems a long way from lower Manhattan; in fact, walking to the mailbox is a lot easier than trekking all the way uptown to Barnes & Noble.


Or maybe you're not even sure which book you want. So you boot up your computer, dial in to your Internet provider, and connect to Amazon.com -- the book-selling Web site that claims to have "Earth's Biggest Selection." It's there on the welcome screen that you'll see a list of the current "Hot Books," on which you can find a novel you've vaguely heard of but never got around to reading: Arthur S. Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, now out in paperback, for example.


But that's not all. Click your mouse on the selection, and a posse of readers waits to advise you on your choice. Bookstore clerks can't do this for you anymore, so why should you walk all the way down to your local Borders? One of the readers who has helpfully posted his thoughts on Amazon explains that Golden "uses an incredible amount of metaphors, adjectives, and can never just describe something the easy way." Fancy that from a novelist.


Another reader feels that there "needs to be a better way to learn about [a] geisha" than plowing through this book. Yes, there probably does. You've been saved.


Here's a sign of the times. Click on an Internet search for the number of sites bearing some earthly link to "opinion," and watch your results to the tune of 1,129,942 hits, give or take a few thousand. Everyone wants to know: "What do you think?"


And we find a fair index to this faith in the critical acumen of the American Everyman in the chatty precincts of the review pages of Amazon.com, the Internet bookstore whose convenience has already altered the purchasing habits of book buyers. By the beginning of this year, Amazon had three million titles in its catalogue, along with 125,000 CDs, figures to strike fear into the hearts of retailers everywhere.


Of course, some unconnected Luddites still complain that electronic commerce isn't like browsing in an actual store. But Amazon is not to be outdone. We can in fact browse, and talk to others, in a manner of speaking, just as though we were cruising the aisles at Barnes & Noble. But there's an even greater innovation: a people's republic of book reviewing.


Here's how it works. If you've done business with Amazon before, you're greeted by name -- still a little eerie, if you're not used to it. Even before you can ask for a selection, Amazon reports it has some "recommendations" tailored just for you, a reading list that the great cranium has constructed by cogitating on your past purchases. (When I click on mine, I discover Amazon has a decently high estimation of me. They think I'll enjoy Poor Richard's Almanack, A Century of Arts & Letters, New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music, and The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. They also think I'll take a shine to something called Being Digital. I'm sure it's a fine book, but I can't imagine what I did to deserve it.)


When you click on one of these book titles to call up the essentials of price and availability, you're also treated to a list entitled "Customers who bought this book also bought . . . ," an up-sell bid to make sure we don't miss out on all the related goodies we weren't smart enough to recognize before. Smoothly written review summaries and plot synopses (from Kirkus Reviews, for instance) are provided for the more popular titles, affording the barest information about the book, often mincingly worded for commercial effect.


Then comes the treat: "Customer Comments," the online reviews from fellow readers. You can't scroll these pages without a certain fresh optimism as common, nonprofessional voices speak within a large and open forum, blithely unencumbered by editorial midwives, able at last to shout and be heard. They're like birds freed from a cage, and it's only with difficulty that you escape the feeling that far too many Americans have far too much time on their hands.