Saturday, July 15, 2006

July 15: Amazon Day

Today is the anniversary of the first book sold on in 1995. The title of the book was Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter. was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos. To name his mega-online store he searched for an appropriate metaphor. The Amazon River seemed appropriate. Although it is the world's second longest river (the Nile is the longest) it is by far the world's largest river when it comes to measuring the volume of water. Thus the name for the world's most voluminous river also became the name of the world's most voluminous bookstore.

The word Amazon has its origins in Greek mythology. The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors, so ferocious and bellicose that they would burn off their right breast to increase their ability to more accurately shoot the enemy with bow and arrow. Achilles killed Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons, and Hercules, in one of his twelve labors, stole the girdle of another Amazon queen.

The name became attached the South American river when explorers noticed a resemblance between the women of the region and the Amazons of antiquity (1).

Today sells much more than books, but books are still its core product.

Since it began selling books online in 1995, has worked diligently to make their site more interactive. Its most unique feature is "Search Inside," where you can browse through a book (at least part of a book) as if you were in a bookstore. In April 2005 "Text Stats" was added to "Search Inside," giving an amazing array of numbers that allow you to compare books like you might compare baseball players. "Text Stats" gives the number of letters, words, and sentences in a book. It also lists "Fun Stats" that show the number of words per dollar and the number of words per ounce. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, for example, is a great value at 51,707 words per dollar.

And if you need more numbers, "Text Stats" also includes numbers related to readability. The "Fog Index," for example, gives the reader a number that corresponds with the grade level required to comprehend the book's text. This score is based on an analysis of a randomly selected 120-word passage from the book. The number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word in this passage are then plugged into a formula that spits out the book's grade level.

All this number crunching has not gone un-noticed by the press. The Washington Post ran an article in August 2005 that was not exactly a raving review:

. . . Text Stats is a triumph of trivialization. By squeezing all the life and loveliness out of poetry and prose, the computer succeeds in numbing with numbers. It's the total disassembling of truth, beauty and the mysterious meaning of words. Except for the Concordance feature, which arranges the 100 most used words in the book into a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry game (2).

Today's Challenge: Words By The Numbers
In the pairs of books below make a guess as to which one is the best value based on Number of Words Per Dollar (WPD) and which book has the higher grade level on the Fog Index (FOG).

1. Hamlet or King Lear?

2. The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick?

3. To Kill A Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies?

4. 1984 or Brave New World?

Quote of the Day: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. --Erasmus

Hamlet: 7,506 WPD; FOG: 8.0
King Lear: 6,753 WPD; FOG: 6.8

The Scarlet Letter: 14,023 WPD; FOG: 14.7
Moby Dick: 19,399 WPD; FOG 13.0

To Kill A Mockingbird: 7,610 WPD; FOG 8.2
Lord of the Flies: 6,208 WPD; 6.7

1984: 13,021 WPD; FOG 10.9
Brave New World: 5,933 WPD; FOG 9.6

1 - Ammer, Christine. Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

2 - Weeks, Linton. "Amazon's Vital Statistics Show How Books Stack Up." Washington Post. 30 August 2005.

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