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Dumb Amazon recommendations, episode 1

Short version

Amazon sent me the following recommendation

We think you might like Summary and Analysis of How to Read Literature Like a Professor: Based on the Book by Thomas C. Foster by Worth Books

Isn’t that funny?

Not-as-short version

As many people who know me know, I’m a bit of a hoarder [1]. I like to accumulate things - books, CDs, office supplies, board games, components for large-scale art projects, and more. (Yes, I plan to read the books, listen to the CDs, use or give away the office supplies, play the games, and complete the art projects. But, well, free time is limited [2].) I accumulate from a variety of sources, and one of them is

It is, of course, Amazon’s mission to convince people to buy even more stuff, whether they need it or not. So Amazon provides me with recommendations in a variety of forms; sometimes they pop up when I’m browsing their site; sometimes they arrive via email. Some of the recommendations make sense. Sometimes they don’t [3].

Of course, if their system was really good, they would regularly send me messages like

Customers who buy as much crap as you do report significant happiness gains when they subscribe to our amazing new psychiatric help and decluttering service. It’s less than you spend on junk each month, and even your free Prime shipping isn’t needed, so it harms the environment less.

But no, they just recommend that I buy things, some physical, some insubstantial [4]. Recently, Amazon sent me what might be the silliest recommendation I have ever received.

We think you might like Summary and Analysis of How to Read Literature Like a Professor: Based on the Book by Thomas C. Foster by Worth Books

The recommendation feels wrong in so many ways. First, I’m pretty sure that most professors don’t use Cliffs Notes [5,6] when they read literature. Hence, I’m not sure why I’d expect to learn anything useful from a Cliffs Notes-style book about reading literature. It seems like a contradiction in terms.

Summary: Read the book itself, paying attention to the careful word choice of the original author. Don’t read short summaries written by people with significantly less talent.

The recommendation is also for a Kindle book. I’m pretty sure that that violates the second aspect of how professors read.

Summary: Read actively, with a pen in hand [7].

That’s hard to do on the Kindle. Yes, I know you can highlight and probably even type notes. It’s not the same thing. I also know that on a more full-featured device, you can take notes on the ebook in your own hand. But that’s not available on the Kindles I use.

Finally, I am a professor. Doesn’t that suggest that I already read literature like a professor? Why would I care about this book at all? (Yes, I know, I want to read literature like a really talented literature professor, say Erik Simpson or Carolyn Jacobson; but that’s not what the book is called.)

The world is a strange place. Or at least Amazon’s recommendation system is strange. Or something. Searching on Amazon for How to Read Literature Like a Professor reveals that there’s also called How to Read Literature Like a Professor: For Kids [8]. Amazon also seems to think that if you search for How to Read Literature Like a Professor, you really intended to find Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, since that’s about the fifth result on the search page. What does that placement suggest? That reading The Handmaid’s Tale teaches you to read like a professor? That professors read The Handmaid’s Tale? That the machine learning algorithm has determined that Professor and Handmaid are similar terms and that Read and Tale are similar terms? Or perhaps, given the forthcoming TV series, it may just be unlabeled sponsorship. As I said, the world is a strange place.

I wonder if I’ll ever get a recommendation for Summary and analysis of summary and analysis of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Now that seems like a summary worth reading.

Now that I’m done writing this essay, I realize that it would likely have been funnier to just give you the quotation from Amazon and be done. I know, I’ll add that (shorter) version of the essay at the top [9]!

Summary and analysis: Sam goes on way too long about a stupid Amazon recommendation. At the end, he realizes that he should be more succinct. But by that time, he’s ready to go to sleep.

[1] That claim may deserve the understatement of the year award.

[2] Arguably, too much of my free time is spent dealing with the stuff I’ve hoarded.

[3] Since Michelle also buys stuff on my Amazon account, they may think I have a split personality. The recent office supply clearance binge has convinced them that I’m a business.

[4] What’s a good word for not physical? I don’t like digital. I don’t like electronic, although that’s probably accurate.

[5] When I was growing up, the yellow-and-black Cliffs Notes were ubiquitous. Students relied on them when they were too lazy to read real literature. Back when I worked at a newsstand, I accumulated a stunning number that we were discarding. I don’t remember what I did with them. I know I didn’t read them. Maybe I was planning an art project.

[6] Do Cliffs Notes still exist? I had thought they’d disappeared with the advent of the Interweb, an amazing world in which anyone can post their own summary of a book for people who are not willing to read the original.

[7] Don’t have a pen in hand if you are dealing with archival texts! But if you’re reading a normal text, taking notes makes a big difference.

[8] I assume that version leaves out the Freudian analyses.

[9] Isn’t it awesome to know that you read what I write in a different order than I write it? I bet professors read non-linearly, too.

Version 1.0 of 2017-02-08.