January 15, 2013

The inverse of Amazon: more useful, just as many photoshopped abs


Exactly the book I wasn’t looking for.

Never let it be said we’re unwilling to take minor things far too seriously.

Case in point: look at this fun bit of code put together by Hilary Mason of bit.ly. It’s simple; an elegant way to pull titles from the Amazon API, seemingly at random, one at a time.

Take a few moments to page through the books and a couple of (unsurprising) trends quickly emerge:

In her brief post about why she bothered to build the project, Mason writes

I like to read. I love bookstores, I like to wander, and to find things that I didn’t know existed. But bookstores don’t have every book that exists. Amazon has most books, but search is a terrible way to discover new things. Amazon’s recommendations most likely maximize purchases, but are a terrible way to find something you didn’t know you were looking for[.]

One of the essential ideas in bookselling, the core frission that defines a whole store, is the tension between ease of reference — whether a book can be gotten to quickly when specifically asked for — and the reward of discovery — whether there is value in a slow browse through the store. Booksellers work hard to carefully calibrate the two. People fetishize cluttered used bookstores for the serendipitous finds to be had there. Likewise, they used to value clean bright bookstores for the ease with which they could find a new, popular book and get out, back to their reading. I say used to because now, though it is a hard-won characteristic in a bookstore, online retail and the efficacies of search have a monopoly — figurative and very literal — on that same ease of reference. If online retailers like Amazon do anything well, if they have to do anything well, it is to help people find the books they are looking for.

What indie bookstore websites do, what Zola does, even what much of Amazon’s own site does, is to add an extruded layer of recommendation, of that sense of wandering that Mason treasures, onto the pure uselessness of search. Search is only of value if you know what you are looking for. Every bookseller knows this.

Mason’s site takes the API built to service the Amazon search engine and directly inverts its purpose. The books drip past one by one in an endless parody of human knowledge and desire. It is damned funny and surprisingly interesting and so, in its way, more useful (or at least more human) than Amazon itself could ever be.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.