This weekend is Father’s Day. A fake holiday, some might say, but an opportunity to do something nice for your dad, nonetheless. So long as he is a dad who deserves anything nice, I think you should take this opportunity.
My dad Jim deserves it because he raised me to pursue my dreams and paid for basically every item I owned before age 21. We live in different cities, and the “nice” thing I can do for my dad on Father’s Day is “buying a thing and mailing it to him.” So, I went to the just-opened Amazon bookstore in New York City’s Columbus Circle to look for a book to send via the reduced-price media mail rate. (No hardcovers; I’m not a Rockefeller! Love you, dad.)
Understanding that Amazon, in all its incarnations, recommends books based on quantifiable data that can be pushed through an algorithm, I prepared by writing down some basic facts about my dad:
Arriving at the Amazon bookstore, I noticed that the “Shops at Columbus Circle” are super fancy and smell amazing. However, the selection in Amazon Books is only wider than that of a Target or an airport Hudson News by a very slim margin, and the selection is also much stupider (more on that in a second) than either.
Selfishly, I forgot about my dad and spent at least 45 minutes taking note of the bizarre realities of stocking a bookstore solely based on 22 years of crowdsourced opinions and three months of preorder data. I don’t think my dad would have a problem with the detour, as I am his child, and he has spent the last 23 years deferring to my whims in situations where it isn’t going to hurt anyone. That’s his job; he’s the parent!
I saw a YouTube personality’s memoir next to a book called How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Control. I saw dozens of expensive-looking coffee-table books about Alexander McQueen, Calvin and Hobbes, and Burning Man. I saw Elon Musk everywhere I turned! I saw the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates sitting directly between the Pantsuit Nation book and a volume of David Brooks essays, three works that could loosely be described as popular, and pertaining to politics or social science, but could not possibly be more different in substance or intent.
The classics that Amazon Books keeps in stock were chosen by an algorithm, but sorted by some indecipherable logic that looks utterly random: the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces and 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner The Color Purple were labeled as such, and they sat in a tiny “Fiction” corner next to both of J.D Salinger’s published works and a single copy of Children of a Lesser God. Pardon me for saying so, but nearly every book available for purchase at Amazon Books is also available for purchase in my mom’s basement, or my hometown church’s annual rummage sale. Amazon’s popularity algorithm causes Amazon Books to display, prominently, books that were blockbuster best-sellers five to 10 years ago, but don’t feel like something you would go to a bookstore in search of in 2017: The Fault in Our Stars, Team of Rivals, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Devil in the White City, etc.
Who else was in the store, and why? Well, I assume a few of the 20 or so people were tourists, as we were in midtown Manhattan at a luxury mall. I saw one man in a suit stride into the center of the store and loudly demand to know where he could find a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — perhaps a book he should have already owned if he was going to be so high and mighty about his own existence, but obviously something he needed urgently. Maybe you would go to Amazon Books if your book situation was urgent? Though, I’ll add that there are other bookstores in the immediate area. I saw a woman plop down in the single available armchair and flip through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which could be an okay way to relax after work. As I said, it smelled nice. I saw all I could see and then I remembered I have a dad, and he needs a gift from me.
Though Amazon bookstores do not employ professionally trained or experienced booksellers, they do employ “facilitators,” as one employee informed me. I showed two facilitators the raw data about my dad and asked them to recommend books based on it.
The first Amazon Books employee I spoke to was Alex, and his opinion was that the best Father’s Day gift would be a new Kindle. However, barring my purchase of a several-hundred-dollar device, Alex thought maybe I should consider one of two books sitting in the store’s main window display: Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A History of Humankind or David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In my opinion, both of these choices sounded a little heavy for a Father’s Day gift. Alex said, “Well next I would point you to the biography section. Al Franken’s new memoir?” My dad loves Al Franken. A great recommendation!
The second Amazon Books employee I spoke to was Jim, also my dad’s name, and his opinion is that, as a member of my family, my dad might enjoy a book that his real-life family had recently read for their book club: The Undoing Project, written by The Big Short author Michael Lewis. I agreed with him, because my dad saw The Big Short movie in theaters and he liked it! Jim went on to tell me that Lewis had been interviewed by Malcom Gladwell, and that the conversation could be viewed on YouTube to supplement enjoyment of the book. As I had just informed the algorithm of Amazon Books and Jim, my dad really enjoyed Freakonomics!
Jim also recommended Chris Crowley’s Younger Next Year, which had been gifted to him by his cardiologist, and which sported the compelling subtitle “Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond.” He made this recommendation because I told him that my dad is 51, so that makes sense to me. What he didn’t seem to remember me saying is that my dad is my dad. I’m not giving him this book; I would rather die. The third book Jim recommended was Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Sure.
Please don’t think it escaped my notice that both Jim and Alex recommended exclusively books written by men. In their defense, a vast majority of the books in Amazon Books were written by men. Algorithms, like people, are flawed, and facilitators constrained by algorithms are equally so.
At one point, a facilitator pointed to the store’s centerpiece, a wall covered in pairs of books labeled “If you like this [arrow to the left], you’ll love this [arrow to the right]” and said “Don’t you just love this?” This wall, somehow, housed one copy of Sierra Demulder’s The Bones Below, a 2010 poetry collection published by the little known one-man-operation Write Bloody Publishing. I was familiar with this book, as I “interned” at Write Bloody’s sole, 100-square-foot Austin, Texas, storefront in the summer of 2013, and was asked, in my downtime, to read Write Bloody books and write favorable reviews of them on Amazon. He was right, I just loved it: The Bones Below has a 4.8-star rating on Amazon.com, derived from 554 customer reviews, the first of which was written by me at age 19. I touched it and then moved along.
With six recommendations to choose from, I decided the only logical way to settle on just one for my dad would be to select the title with the highest aggregate customer rating on Amazon.com. Unfortunately that was The Boys in the Boat, with 4.7 stars, which I desperately did not want to buy. To be honest with you, it sounds boring as all hell.
One thing algorithms and facilitators cannot do is account for what a gifter wants a gift to say, contextualized by the human relationship that instigates the gifting. I don’t want to tell my dad that I think he’s interested in obscure PBS books about boat Olympics, and I also don’t want to tell my dad that I’m lame enough to pick that book out. Though an algorithm could not tell you this, my dad is cooler in person than he is on paper.
In the end, I purchased a book I had stumbled upon randomly, in the Entertainment section, nestled between dozens of books about Star Wars, video games, and Jon Stewart (maybe at another time we can discuss the uh… demographic that Amazon’s algorithm seems to favor). Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Seinfeldia, an excerpt of which was published on The Verge the first summer that I worked here, and that I distinctly recall sharing with my dad, was paired with an online customer review that had not been spell-checked. Oh, well. Seinfeld is one of my dad’s favorite TV shows, and I watched syndicated episodes with him after dinner every night as a kid, mostly because he left me no choice. He’s the parent; it’s his job to control the TV during prime time. Amazon doesn’t know any of this, and it’s none of Amazon’s business.
I’m excited to tell you that I did get something out of visiting the Amazon bookstore, other than one book that seemed “okay” as a present: the opportunity to blog about an uncomplicated, unqualified feeling for once. An algorithmically sorted bookstore is a terrible idea, no matter how many well-intentioned and reasonably intelligent persons walk around inside it and do their best to sort human beings by their compatibility with one of approximately 27 different items. Yes, there are some good books in an Amazon bookstore, but only because, once in a while, the hordes of weirdos who give star ratings to things on the internet read a good book. Yes, if you need a book right this minute you can buy one in Amazon Books. Big deal!
A bookstore is a place, and Amazon.com is a website, and this bad marriage of digital and physical space made me tired and sad. In fact, after an hour “experiencing” Amazon Books, I spent five dollars on an iced coffee with condensed milk in it. I had no choice.
Seinfeldia would have cost $5.59 less, had I signed up for an Amazon Prime account on the spot, or had I elected to go home and sign up for an Amazon Prime account and input a code from my receipt. Fortunately I recouped these savings via my choice not to mail the book, a decision I made because I suddenly remembered that I’m going to see my dad in person at my sister’s high school graduation in six days.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad! See you soon!