Three Quick Book Reviews and a Rant about Amazon.com

What I’ve been reading.

Late yesterday afternoon, while taking a relaxing, hot bath, I finished reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Those of you who are movie-goers may remember the movie of the same name, which came out in 1986, starring Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater.

I vaguely remembered the movie and was drawn to the book by its mention in a number of lists that appeared in Bookmarks magazine and Mystery Scene magazine. So I went to our excellent library here in Wickenburg and borrowed a copy of the book.

I’m fast reader, but this book was a slow read for me. The underlying mystery of the dying monks is what interested me, but the book was also full of insightful details about monastery life in 1300s Italy. And there was another plot line concerning a meeting of several orders of monks with delegates from the Pope. That was backed up by page after page of information about religious beliefs and differences of opinion and Middle Ages politics. Although I’m sure this is interesting to a student of those times, it was the part that slowed me down.

Since there was a movie made from the book and since I only vaguely remembered it, I picked up a copy at the video rental place on my way home yesterday. I couldn’t get it in DVD, so I was stuck with a less-than-perfect VHS copy. That’s okay; it was good enough for a Sunday evening’s entertainment. Mike watched it with me. The movie simplified the book’s details and made a bit of a plot twist that put protagonist William (Sean Connery) in greater jeopardy — something that always seems to work well in movies. It was more entertaining than the book, but I think it could have been done better. Still, the visuals of the abbey seemed quite realistic.

I also purchased the recently published The Elements of Style: Illustrated, which I heard about in an NPR interview with the illustrator, Maira Kalman. This book is a faithful reproduction of the grammar and usage classic with a twist: many of the example sentences are illustrated with full-color paintings. This little hardcover book will replace my old softcover edition on my reference book shelf. The illustrations are colorful and amusing. I bought four copies of the book and plan to give the other three to my favorite editors as Christmas gifts.

A few months ago, I heard another story on NPR, this one about a new computer DVD set called The Complete New Yorker. This eight DVD set includes scanned images of virtually every page of the New Yorker magazine going back to its first issue in 1925. Extremely flexible and well-designed reader software makes it easy to find, browse, view, or read each page of each issue. I’d read some feedback on Amazon.com (which I no longer use to buy my books; more on that in a moment) about this “book” and most of the complaints centered around not being able to read the articles without seeing the advertisements. But that’s precisely why I find this book so interesting. I can see magazine content with advertisements side-by-side. That might seem weird, but when you consider that the ads go back to 1925, you may realize the historic significance of it. Or at least my interest.

I installed the reader software on my PowerBook — it works great on Mac OS x 10.3 or later, as well as Windows (as you might expect) — and was soon browsing the very first issue of the magazine. Then I tried out the search feature, which enables you to search by year, issue, author, department, or topic. Although the search feature could be a little quicker, I suspect it’s my G4 PowerBook that’s holding it back. (The computer is just starting to show its age.) I look forward to loading everything up on my dual G5 in the office — including disk images of the 8 DVDs (if that’s possible) for something to browse through when I’m on hold, waiting for some kind of customer service or technical support. (I seem to spend an awful lot of time on hold these days.)

If you’re wondering why I’ve called it quits with Amazon, here’s the deal. I became an Amazon associate back when the company was first started and sold quite a few books for them, pocketing a generous 15% commission. Somewhere along the line, they changed the commission structure and my revenue stream suffered for it. But that’s not why I’m cutting them out of my life.

I first started getting annoyed by Amazon’s reader review program. Reviews seemed to fall into three categories: normal people writing reviews (okay with me), people who were very full of themselves and thought they were great reviewers writing reviews (get a life, guys), and people who obviously wrote a review to bash the author or the book for some personally-motivated reason. This came to a head when I read a review of one of my Quicken books and realized that the reviewer hadn’t even read the book before soundly bashing it. Most of what he said was simply not true and anyone paging through the book could see it for themselves. But one of the problems with buying online is that you can’t page through the book. People rely on the reviews and when they bash the author, people don’t buy. Of course, it goes the other way, too. I once bought a book on Amazon.com because of several rave reviews. I truly believe the author had his friends write those reviews because the book was just awful. But Amazon rewards people for their “opinions,” no matter why they were contributed or how realistic they are.

Amazon also constantly “suggests” titles based on previous purchases and searches. I once bought two books about eBay for my sister, who was trying to put my godfather’s antiques on eBay for sale and needed help. For months afterward, Amazon kept pushing eBay books at me. And I’m really tired of seeing lists of suggestions by people I don’t even know. Yet there’s no way to turn off this feature — I’ve written to them and asked.

The final straw happened last month when I ordered three books and a calendar, all of which were supposedly in stock and ready for shipment. I chose the “Super Saver” shipping option, which gives you free shipping when all items can be shipped together. Suddenly my order was shifted to the back burner. I received an e-mail message saying that the items would be shipped out on December 26 — more than two months after my order! I wrote to them asking why I had to wait. I got a response with some nonsense about multiple warehouses and how the items would have to be collected in one place for shipment. But they made a “one time” exception for me. I had the books in 3 days. I’m still waiting for the calendar.

I started browsing Barnes & Noble’s Web site, www.bn.com, and found the same prices as Amazon with fewer annoying “reviews” and targeted marketing. BN also has free shipping for orders over $25 and when you choose it, your books go out within 3 days using 3-day UPS shipping. So now I use BN.com and highly recommend it to anyone who buys books online.

What’s next on my reading list? I think I need to finish up a few books I started and set aside. More on those in another entry.

What do you think?