Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: The French Lieutenant’s Bookshop?

[This would be the thirteenth episode of Mr. Amazon's Bookshop, if it were an episode. The previous episode is here. A list of all episodes is here. In the previous episode, Kylie and Edmund vanished from Whimsley Hall after finding out that Mr. Amazon's recommendations were doing nothing to help sell Kylie's story The Adventures of Wazzock. Whimsley sunk into a brief depression before being roused by Jennie the one-legged housekeeper, who sent him into the village just in time to see Kylie and a pack of teenagers heading towards Mr. Amazon's Bookshop with trouble on their minds.]

I wrote the first ten episodes of this story in a couple of weeks around Christmas, when I had some time off work and the story seemed fresh and interesting. The two most recent episodes have been written on weekends in and around cooking, cleaning and so on. And now we have all the principals with the exception of Jennie the one-legged housekeeper – Whimsley, Google, Kylie, Edmund (who is in the crowd, near the back, though you might not have noticed him), Mr. Amazon -  in one place, and something dramatic is obviously about to happen. But what?

Now I don't want to go all John Fowles here (see the book in the title) and pontificate about the nature of the plot as artifice and the role of the author. That's so last century. Plus, when Fowles wrote that he could send his heroine this way or that, and when he wrote his alternative endings, he had actually finished his book, so the questioning of his role as author was a little precious.

My problem is different. I don't have two ways to finish the story, I have none. In fact, there is no story from here on.

I have some ideas about things that might happen next, including what seems to me a rather neat twist about the obviously impending assault on Mr. Amazon's Bookshop, but they are vague and they have problems. Not least among them is my growing tiredness with Whimsley himself. His one-dimensional nature was a benefit in Mr. Google's Guidebook (written just over a year ago! how time flies), but after stretching him over 15,000 words rather than 2,000 I am not sure there is much more to be said about the internet from the point of view of a delusional alcoholic gothic anachronism.

I did think Kylie may provide an alternative focus for the story, but she has fallen somewhere between a youthful village mob-boss, a smart and witty kid, and a yokel, without one aspect of her character really crystallizing in my imagination.

And then there is the technology issue. Clearly the Kindle has to come in to the plot somehow. Having Google already on scene means that a last-minute twist driven by the Google Book Settlement might be a nice way to finish off the tale. Perhaps Kylie drives Amazon out of town only to hand Google her stories for him to distribute? And I am sure that after all this it will turn out that there are indeed mole-people, but that they are working for Google, not Amazon, slavishly copying all those books for his ever-expanding guidebook.

So we will see. I realize this raises questions about the responsibility of the author to finish a story once started. I would like to finish it, and I expect that I will do so. But there will be no episode this week.

This is not a fish for attention and reinforcement, by the way. I have appreciated the comments on earlier episodes. And to prove that it is not, I will close comments on this posting. It's just an observation that I have other things going on, like work and family and friends and books and spring, and I have no episodes stocked away ready to be brought out and posted. If anyone wishes to continue the story on their own blog, feel free: I will be happy to link to it.

So with that, see you next week, with luck.

Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: Where is Kylie?

[This is the twelfth episode of Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop. The previous episode is here. A list of all episodes is here. In the previous episode, Kylie and Edmund spent a morning running Whimsley’s differ and made some disturbing findings about the Mr. Amazon’s recommendations. Then Kylie left without warning to go and steal some lunch, leaving Whimsley even more bemused than usual.]

After the excitement and confusion of Kylie and Edmund’s investigation, evening found me tired and emotional. My head was spinning with all the numbers they had collected and what Kylie seemed to make of them. You may not believe this, but I was feeling a little out of my depth. At sea even. We gentry typically have little use for numbers bigger than a dozen or so; anything more and we have hired help to deal with them. And though my interest in the differ had got me more familiar with numerology than most of my class, I had always been more enthusiastic about building the device than actually using it.

I had written Kylie off as riff-raff when I first met her, but I was beginning to realize that some of these youngsters may actually know a thing or two. Her outburst about Mr. Amazon’s unfairness carried the mark of immaturity and self-dramatization so characteristic of her class and sex, but as I pored over the notebook I really did not know what to make of the reams of Edmund’s writing in my notebook. Yesterday Kylie had showed me one page of summary and claimed that is showed Mr. Amazon’s populist claims to be fraudulent, but as I turned page after page of my notebook I could make neither head nor tail of the admirably neat tables and lists that I saw in front of me. My first thought was that it would be embarrassing to have to ask for more detailed explanations, but then I realized that numerology is really a matter for the trades, not for men of standing, so there is no shame in being a little foggy when it comes to details. My neighbour Mr. Belloc was correct when he told me of his friend’s fate:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light
It struck him dead, and serve him right.
It is the duty of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

By then I was looking forward to Kylie’s return, when I would demand further explanation of her investigations and take our next steps in what seemed increasingly like a campaign against Mr. Amazon and his book “shop”. I had the bit between my teeth and was ready to run – I felt energized and zealous.

But Kylie did not reappear the next day. I fretted, and paced the grounds.

And she did not appear the following day either. I went by the gardener’s hut to ask Edmund her whereabouts, but Edmund had vanished as well! I expressed my concern to his father, who told me Edmund frequently went to stay with relatives in the village and that I “should not worry my little head”, which seemed charming enough, but was hardly helpful.

When neither was to be seen on the third morning, my spirits tumbled and I retreated into the gloom of Whimsley Hall. Their explosion of youthful energy reminded me what a grim dwelling it has become over the years, and their sudden absence plunged me into weeks of sour temper. The stone pillars, the sepulchural halls, the long shadows – they speak to my bones through the generations of Whimsleys, and yet there are times when I resent their weight and their lugubrious depths. A darkness came over me in those days, despite the summer sunshine outside. I spent morning after morning in the breakfast room just staring at the patterns made by the damp on the ornate wallpaper, afternoons in the library poring slack-jawed over erotic tales and cheap pulp novels. The evenings in fitful, chemically-assisted slumber.

Google would bring me the newspaper each morning and tell me the odd facts he always has at his fingertips that would normally keep me amused, yet they could do nothing to lift my spirits. Jennie would clatter into the room, swinging on her crutch, to bring me my breakfast or to clean away a few of the every-accumulating cobwebs. Usually a friendly sight, she became a Barquentine-like presence, stunted and cantakerous and clouded with a deep rage. And why not? He family has served mine for six generations, tied almost as intimately as myself to the arches and history of Whimsley Hall. She has watched from close up my failure to maintain its legacy, to prevent its fall. The world was changing around me, I felt. Whimsley Hall has been, truth to tell, an anachronism for years. And now, in the new world of the prim Mr. Amazon and his impersonally-friendly recommendations, what place would there be for the traditional virtues of short sharp floggings, of loyalty and doffings of caps and tied cottages? Ritual and symbol were fading. I could see no way to raise myself from despondency.

It was Jennie who dragged me out of my self-absorpion, as autumn approached and the winds and rain came back to scour Whimsley village. One morning she hobbled in with my usual breakfast tray of fried eggs, fried bacon, fried black pudding, fried potatoes, fried sausages, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes and fried bread, together with a half-full bowl of soup. She was breathing deeply, clearly exhausted from her journey up the staircase as she cleared a spot on the desk and threw the tray unceremoniously in front of me. “There you go. Full English. Not that it will help.”

“What do you mean, help?” Jennie rarely spoke these days, so I was taken aback.

“You’ve not been eating right for weeks. Ever since that excitement with Kylie and Edmund and the differ. You’re going downhill in a big way sir, and I’m not going to stand by and watch it happen. You need to pull yourself together.”

Of course, if there is one thing guaranteed not to help a person in spiritual pain it is telling them to pull themselves together. I scowled and stabbed a fork half-hearedly at a half-hearted sausage.

“You’re fretting about them numbers Kylie and Edmund put together ain’t you? She’s too quick for the likes of you, that one.”

“You know Kylie?”

“Well”, she said in a most un-servant-like tone, “they don’t call it Whimsley village for nothing. It’s not exactly surprising if I live down the street from Kylie Higgins is it? There’s not that many streets. And even if I didn’t, everyone knows Kylie. You can’t miss that one, what with running the bookie’s for her Dad. She’s smart, that kid, and she puts up with no nonsense.”

“The bookie’s eh? That would explain her facility with numbers. Do you know where she is? She said she would be back, but then she and Edmund just vanished.”

“Well she’s been up to no good, I can tell you that. Sometimes I sit on my porch of an evening you know. Watch the dogs fight, just to pass the time. It’s not easy to get around a lot, what with having one leg. Not that some people care, getting me to hop up and down staircases all bloody day long.”

“A little exercise will do you good, I’m sure. Just you wait and see. But what do you mean ‘up to no good’?”

“What I heard was that she decided Mr. Amazon’s a fraud. So she’s been rounding up some of the local kids – teenagers with nowt to do over the summer holidays. She started off by telling them stories about this Wazzock character and his dragon and they loved it. But then last night she just stopped. They got mad and she just says ‘Well if you want to know more you’d better go and get Mr. Bloody Amazon to sell you a book then.’ They didn’t look so keen on that, so she says ‘And if you don’t want to buy one, maybe you could just take it. Who’s to stop you?'” So I reckon she’s got it in for this Amazon and she’s going to set the neighbourhood kids on him – break in and do the place over,
if you get my meaning. Maybe they’ve already done it.”

“I’ve no doubt she’s capable of vandalism. But vandalism won’t help sell her book, will it? I think I’ll have to talk some sense into the young harridan. We pillars of the community have a duty, don’t you know?”

“You betcha. You’d better not waste any time if you want to stop her. You’ll probably find her at the bookie’s or in the park by the pond. So you won’t be needing these eggs then? Not to worry, I’ll look after them.” And with that Jennie whisked the tray from under my nose, and clattered off towards the staircase before I could say anything, spilling the remaining soup in all directions as she went.

It was indeed time, I decided, to take action. Raising myself from my torpor I flung open the windows and breathed in the stale odour of the Whimsley air. I found my walking stick, put on my heaviest boots and within a few minutes I was striding off down the road to the village, with the cobwebs of my mind left among the cobwebs of Whimsley Hall. Just as I approached the gate I noticed Google talking to the gardener. He’s a big man and might be handy if there’s trouble, I decided. “You’re with me Google!” I cried, “There’s trouble at Mr. Amazon’s shop and we need to be the voice of reason. I know you don’t like the man – not too keen on him myself – but we can’t have hooliganism in Whimsley village. Not cricket is it?” I’m gratified to say that Google looked shocked. I can tell you that doesn’t happen often. He dropped his conversation like a hot potato and came after me, and the gardener followed too.

We approached the village and turned up the street on which Mr. Amazon’s bookshop was found, and were greeted by the sight of a crowd of youth – perhaps twenty of them – approaching the shop from the other end. They looked tense and nervous; sleeves rolled up, ready for business. Kylie was at their head, but she didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Instead the crowd went straight to the bookshop and she yanked at the door.

It did not open.

“Hey, Amazon!” she yelled. “I want some answers. And I want you to sell some copies of my book. I’ve got some customers here, so let us in, right?” She hammered on the door again.

It looked like there was going to be trouble. How delicious!

Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: Recommending the Big Sellers

[This is the eleventh episode of Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop. A list of all episodes is here; the previous episode is here. In the previous episode Kylie began to think that Mr. Amazon might be “just like the bastard publishers”, pushing big sellers at customers rather than promoting books like her own novel The Adventures of Wazzock. Meanwhile, Whimsley was becoming increasingly befuddled by the swirl of activity around him. His befuddlement even interfered with his sleep….]

I had trouble sleeping that night. It wasn’t just the heat mixing with the cat-urine-induced damp of the carpets to produce the acidic tang that so characterizes Whimsley Hall in the summer; I find that odour reminds me of my own childhood and is surprisingly comforting. No, Kylie’s virulence had quite upset me and my usual tonics did not seem to relax me as they usually do. But finally I slept fitfully, only to dream…

I looked out of my bedroom window to see a book lying in the middle of the vegetable garden. As I watched, the book opened and a vine grew from its spine, each page becoming a leaf. The vine sprouted pods periodically along its length, and each one erupted to vomit a new book onto the ground. These new books sprouted vines in turn, and the vegetable garden was soon a mass of twisting green creepers, writhing ever closer to the walls of Whimsley Hall. Before I knew what was happening, they were appearing at the window, and each leaf bore the face of Mr. Amazon. “If you like vegetables”, said one, “maybe you would be interested in this,” and the leaf rotted on the stalk, emitting a stench of rotten turnip. “If you like books”, said another “maybe you would like a phonograph, or some toys, or some gourmet groceries”, and an avalanche of bread, mechanical devices, soup, toy soldiers, and other contrivances flooded the floor of my bedroom. “It’s a new economy of abundance!” crowed a face to my left; “It’s a world of choice!” cheered one to my right. More and more, faster and faster, the faces wriggled and wormed their way over the windowsill, in through the ceiling, up through the floor, until I could hardly move

I woke suddenly, tangled in the bedclothes, sweating and shaking. The room was empty, the window closed, the night quiet. I squirmed out from the sheets, ran to the window and stared out, but everything was peaceful. Reassured but exhausted, I put my nightcap back on my head and returned to my bed, and drifted back to slumber. But just as I was about to lose consciousness, I thought I heard Mr. Amazon’s voice again. “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a human trying on a new boot – forever.”

The following day dawned grey and wet. The rain battered the windows, and I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment as I realized Kylie was unlikely to venture all the way from the village to Whimsley Hall today, but before I had even started in on my kippers there was a knock at the window.

“What’re you doing Mr. W? Me and the imbecile had been busy for hours. Come and have a look.”

I ran to the door, and sure enough, steam was billowing from the stable chimney. The differ was running. I stood straight, called for an umbrella, and set out to join the urchins. Jennie the one-legged housekeeper carried the umbrella for me so that I could finish my kippers and tea on the way over. The umbrella kept knocking against my head as she bounced up and down. It really is most inconvenient to keep her on sometimes, but one does what one can.

“So tell me,” I demanded as I strode – impressively I’m sure – into the stables.  “What have you been doing with my differ?”

“Well,” started Kylie, “the undersized lamebrain here was watching you when you set up your dials to send the questions to Mr. Amazon. So we worked out how to send our own questions. And we chose another book, and we grew a shop from it. We did the same as you did: choose one book as the seed; visit about a thousand times. Each visit, we look at summat between 0 and 20 books, and the shortarse wrote down all the output.” She pointed at Edmund, asleep in the corner. “This time we chose something called The Shack by William Paul Young. It’s a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God, and a lot of people seem to like it. So we’ve got the whole bookshop down in your notebook. You’ll be needing some new cats by the way.” She gestured to a damp pile of fur on the floor opposite the dials.

“And what did you find?”

“In short, a lot. Here, why don’t I pour you a drink and you can take a seat while I tell you all about it.” She poured what looked like a stiff gin into a cup and handed it over.

I took the drink with thanks, and sat attentively.

“First things first. In the Shack shop, we spent half the time looking at books in the top 2204 sellers, which is pretty much just the same as the Special Topics in Calamity Physics book shop. And four fifths of the time is spent in the top 22,700, which is five thousand less than yesterday’s bookshop, and there’s only one in ten views that are outside the top one hundred grand. So that’s slanted even more to the best sellers than the Special Topics shop.”

“You’ve obviously been busy,” I was having a hard time following all these numbers, but Kylie ploughed on remorselessly.

“So dummkopf here, he’s pumping the bellows like mad and writing it all down and he says ‘Let’s do some more Kylie!’, so we did. He’s quite the bundle of energy this kid”, She punched him amiably in the stomach and Edmund stirred in his sleep. “I’ll show you the results here.”

A sheet of paper in my notebook had a summary of each of the shops they had created, the median sales rank, and the time spent in browsing around the top 100,000 sellers. Here it is.

Store Median  Top 100K   Seed Book
 7     1742    87.5    Testimony
 4     2007    91.4    The Lucky One
 9     2113    89.4    The Shock Doctrine
10     2113    87.6    Special Topics in Calamity Physics
12     2191    86.5    Our Mutual Friend
 1     2192    89.8    The Shack
29     2238    98.3    Bones
20     2276    88.2    The Shock Doctrine
22     2388    88.5    The Long Tail
17     2471    92.5    Our Mutual Friend
 8     2650    86.6    Conservatism That Can Win Again
21     2808    90.4    The Conscience of a Liberal
24     2888    90.1    The Long Tail
27     3135    88.8    The Long Tail
 5     3158    96.0    Seven Habits of Highly Successful People
19     3380    89.1    The Long Tail
 6     3438    91.2    No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart
14     3487    88.2    The Conscience of a Liberal
25     3610    88.3    The Long Tail
23     3627    93.3    The Long Tail
26     3681    91.5    The Long Tail
18     4060    84.8    The Conscience of a Liberal
13     4101    88.0    Surrender is Not an Option
16     5326    90.0    Riddley Walker
30     5750    87.9    Graph Drawing
28     6117    88.3    The Secret History
 2     6222    86.2    How To Eat
15     7231    84.6    Our Mutual Friend
31     7583    100     The Secret History
 2    17794    76.3    Last Best Gifts
11    51992    58.5    The Dilbert Principle

I pored over the numbers, unsure what to make of them. “So explain, snotnose” I grumbled. Somehow this venture did not feel entirely mine any more.

“It’s like this,” the vixen explained, slightly patronizingly I felt, “We did a number of books as seeds to see how things went differently depending on your starting point.”

“But some have the same book name.”

“That’s because each bookshop may go different ways, depending on what choices the cat tells you to make, and we wanted to see if the results depended a lot on what book you start with. So would you always get the same shop if you start with one book.”

“And do you?”

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Like, we did Our Mutual Friend twice because we both did Charles Dickens at school and hated it. Can’t that man say anything in less than twenty pages? And you can see that one of them ended up with a median of 2471 and one with a median of over 7,000. That’s quite a difference on this list. And we did The Long Tail quite a few times because Mr. Amazon told me about that when I asked him how he could help The Adventures of Wazzock to get what it deserves. But in the end, with a few exceptions it doesn’t make much difference what book you start with. You’ll spend at least half your time in the top 10,000 books, which is like browsing around the heavy traffic area of a regular bookshop. And you’ll spend almost all your time in the top 100,000, so you don’t really see much that you wouldn’t see in a normal bookshop.”

“What about these exceptions you mention?”

“There are three that are different, and all for the same reason. Look at these bottom three in the list. The Secret History, Last Best Gifts, and The Dilbert Principle.”

“What about them?”

“Well The Dilbert Principle is the book that spends most of its time out in the outsider part of the shop, beyond the 100 grand mark. Any idea why?”

“Well I have heard that Dilbert is an humorous illustration of some kind. Isn’t that right?”

“Yeah, so what you get is, you bounce around a lot of other comic books. Every one of the top 14 books is a Dilbert book and from what I can tell all but two of the top 80 are comics. There’s not really any one big bestseller in comics, so that’s why you spend so much time in the outsider books.”

“And what about Last Best Gifts?”

“A bit different. It’s basically an academic book and you end up going round a lot of other academic books. You don’t always do that – like Graph Theory is pretty much like a bestseller – but Last Best Gifts seems to just wander the academic ghetto. What a bunch of losers!”

“And The Secret History?”

“Now that one is very strange.” Kylie frowned and scratched her stomach, contemplating the oddities of the world. “This shop has the least number of books of all. Ten thousand different views and there’s only 14 different books in the lot! The reason is that early on it gets into books by this bloke Christopher Moore who, it says here, writes offbeat humour. And then all the recommendations are for other Christopher Moore books. And the really odd thing is that none of those books appear in any of the other bookshops. You either like Christopher Moore or you don’t I guess.”

“So what have we learned?”

“Well, first that it’s really easy to get distracted by these little stories of what makes one bookshop different from another.”

“And second?”

“That’ll have to wait until tomorrow. I’m hungry and I’m going to steal some lunch.” And with that she stalked, hands deep in pockets, down the drive towards the village.

Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: Kylie Returns

[This is the ninth instalment of Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop. A list of all instalments is here; the previous instalment is here.]

I could hardly believe my bleary eyes when I entered the stable the next day — young Edmund was there already, sitting at the trestle table next to the differ controls, with my private notebook open in front of him! He may smudge it with his grubby gardener fingers, or drip his slimy gardener snot over my pages! I swatted him across the back of the hands with my switch (I always carry a switch). “Enough of that lad! What do you think you’re doing? Don’t meddle in matters you don’t understand.”

“Sorry Mr. Whimsley sir. I was just thinking, that’s all. And drawing.”

“Drawing! Drawing what?”

“Well, you were thinking about them books, right?”

“Yes, to put it simplistically, I concede you could say that.”

“Well, I drew some graphs for you. I like graphs. They have colours.”

“Graphs of what, you idiot? I do hope you’ve not been messing up my notebook!”

“Oh no sir. Here they are, in my own scrapbook.” He put a great big book onto the table and showed me. I was stunned: the airhead was apparently not entirely stupid. Here is what I saw.

I could not immediately discern what the graph was saying, so I demanded: “Explain this to me Edmund!”

“Well sir, I’m not entirely sure, but I was looking at this last night and it seems to me that you can use a graph like this to say something about whether Mr. Amazon is making culture more democratic or not. You know, like Kylie says.”

“You know that scold Kylie? How on earth?”

“Yes sir. At least, when we’re at school she always beats me up and takes my lunch money from me, and even though it’s summer holidays she turned up at my house yesterday because she said she was bored and wanted a reason to be pissed off at someone. I was looking at your notebook so she just took it. She’s a bit like that.”

“I had noticed. But wait a minute! You had my notebook? What kind of effrontery is that?”

“Well, judging from how loud you were snoring and the level of the scotch bottle on the table in the conservatory you weren’t going to be needing it, so I thought I might be able to help you a little.”

I brandished the switch, but restrained myself.

“Tell me the rest, vagabond.”

“Well Kylie, she looks at it, and she says ‘This is T’owd Git’s innit?'”

“T’owd Git?”

“That’s what we all call you in the village. I’m not sure what it means. Something like “his lordship” but more affectionate I think. Anyway, she stared at it for some time and muttered to herself and then looked at me and said in this really grim voice, ‘The median salesrank is crap. And the distribution is scanty. There are too many repeats here. Something’s not right.’ Then she gave it back to me and slapped my on the head.”

“Median distribution? What could she mean?”

“I don’t know sir, but I think she’s coming up here soon to talk to you about it. She’s not right pleased.”

Sure enough, who was coming up the driveway but Kylie, striding purposefully, arms swinging and fingers clenching. She entered the stable and stood, arms crossed, staring pugnaciously up at me.

“Well Mr. W. Looks like we have a problem don’t it?”

“What’s that, Kylie? This is really too early in the morning for stressful conversations. Can’t it wait?”

“Either you don’t know what you’re doing with that differ of yours” – she gestured dismissively towards my magnificent machine – or Mr. Amazon ain’t what I hoped he’d be. Now between you and me, guv’nor, Mr. Amazon looks a lot more likely to be the goods than you do. But I’ve got a lot riding on The Adventures of Wazzock and I need to know for sure. That’s why I’m here.”

“I don’t know what you mean? Amazon is a prim little functionary, while I am a scholar and a gentleman.”

“Right you are. So he’s got an eye on the ready and you’re just pissing about, when you’re not blotto that is.” She nodded at my overcoat pocket, where my cognac flask created, I fear, a slight bulge.

“And one other thing. That notebook of yours said it was volume 49 number 11, so I’m thinking you do a lot of writing. I bet you’re going to write this whole escapade down in one of them notebooks of yours ain’t you?”

“Well, the thought had crossed my mind,” I admitted.

“Well I bet you make a reet mess of the way I speak. I bet it’s nowt like how I sound. I bet you can’t even decide what part of the country I come from.”

“Never mind that, young lady. Back to your visit. I have a proposal.”

She raised her left eyebrow quizzically.

“Three things. First, you get to take part in my grand inquisition here. I’d be lying if I told you that I like Mr. Amazon, but I do want to be fair and you may be able to help balance my enthusiasms.”

“Fair enough.”

“Second, you stop taking young Edmund’s lunch money.” The gormless youngster was positively cowering from Kylie, and a small part of me felt almost protective of the rabbit-like idiot.

“No problem. He never has much anyway.” She glanced scornfully and dismissively in the oaf’s direction. “Relax, prat. I’ll leave you be.” Edmund gave a long and relieved sigh.

“And third, you promise to work with us as a team.”

“No sweat guv’nor. Let’s get to work. Show me what you’ve got.”

I brought out my notebook and Edmund’s scrapbook. She snatched them both and took them into the corner and stared fixedly at them for ten minutes. I was a little affronted, but Kylie was such a hellion that I dared not interrupt, so I pretended to be inspecting and oiling the differ. Finally, she emerged.

“Right Mr. W. First thing. Your method is crap. You obviously have no idea about proper statistics. You look like you’re making it up as you go along.”

“But the differ…”

“But let’s put that aside. I don’t see that other methods are going to give information that’s much different. The best way to know what Mr. A. is up to is to look inside his operation, but even I don’t know how to do that, so I’m sure you haven’t got a clue. Without that kind of insider info, this will have to do. The problem is not collecting information, it’s knowing what questions you want to ask of it once you’ve collected it.”

“Well why don’t you tell me your ideas, since you seem to have such a low opinion of mine.”

“Right you are then. You’ve got a couple of good things, here in this  scrapbook. Funny how your handwriting is getting better, and these graphs are very nice. Is this your neat copy or what?” Fortunately she did not give me a chance to answer.

“This graph. Here’s the way I see it. You’ve got about 10,000 book views here. That’s books Mr. A. has recommended and that you’ve picked up to look at. The median sales rank is 2120. That means about half of all the book views in this shop, the one that’s grown from Special Topics in Crap Physics or whatever, is spent in the top 2000 sellers. Now 2000 is a small number.”

“No it ain’t,” the stunted moron interjected, “it’s a bloody big number.” 
Kylie paused. “Unbelievably, you may be right, blockhead. First thing we do, we find
out how big a number 2000 is. And there are some other numbers too. Four fifths of the time is spent looking at books in the top 30,000. And just over an eighth of the time is spent looking at books outside the top 100,000. So are these big numbers or what?”
“I believe I can help.” I had been caught a little off-balance with this flurry of numbers and thoughts, but righted myself quickly to reassert my natural authority. “I have just the person who can tell us these things. My butler is a whiz when it comes to trivia.”
“Is that Mr. Google?” asked Kylie, “Yeah, he’s smart. Let’s go find him and ask.”

Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: Mr. Amazon’s Shelves

[This is the eighth instalment of Mr. Amazon's Bookshop. A list of all instalments is here; the previous instalment is here.]

As the heat of July dried the horse droppings on the road into that agreeably dusty texture they gain in late summer, I received the final piece I needed to repair my differ. I immediately grabbed Edmund again and headed out to the stable.

"What's this all about Mr. Whimsley?" asked the idiot child.

"Never you mind Edmund. Just watch and learn. And pump those bellows, there's a good lad."

The halfwit pumped and soon I was ready to embark on my first serious venture.

I had the first few lists of books for what I now thought of as a bookshop grown from a single seed, that seed being Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I had already carried out two "visits" to the shop, first picking up a dozen books in succession, and using Mr. Amazon's recommendations to build shelves around each book, selecting one from the shelf each time as a starting point for a new shelf. Now I wanted to do this again and again, and I wanted to find out just how big the bookshop would grow, and how diverse it would be. This time I would use Mr. Amazon's sales rank to tell me about what kind of books Mr. Amazon is really recommending. Would Mr. Amazon lead me into the world of undiscovered books? Would he, I found myself wondering, recommend Kylie's The Adventures of Wazzock? Would "browsing" through his recommendations uncover the hidden gems in the mass of barely-read, midlist and overlooked books? I could hardly wait to find out.

"Right young Edmund, let's get ready for some serious work. You pump the bellows like mad, I'm going to give this engine a run like she's never had before!"

"Whoopee!!" yelled the knee-high dullard, and he pumped harder and harder. I flung the cat at the wall and it selected a visit-length of 5 books. I sent off the first request and it came back quick as a flash, I flung the cat, and repeated four more times. I scribbled the list in my notebook, this time together with the sales rank of each book:
Bridge of Sighs (1,132)
The Gathering (978)
On Chesil Beach (3451)
Out Stealing Horses (268)
Man Gone Down (62472)

I was exhausted, but a convenient thought came to my mind. Edmund had got the bellows working well enough that he only pumped them one minute in every three.

"Edmund! Can you write, young lad?"

"That I can Mr. Whimsley sire. I win prizes for my calligraphy."

I doubted the word of the stunted cretin, but thought he may be able to help me nevertheless. "I'll give you a chance then. Come here and write what I say." I handed him my pencil and notebook, and constructed the next visit:
Tree of Smoke (3583)
The Savage Detectives (1130)
The Gathering (978)
Bridge of Sighs (1132)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (17)

I had to admit his handwriting was exemplary, and quick as a flash too. Perhaps young Edmund was not as retarded as I had thought, despite his perpetually snot-dripping nose. We sent a query again and constructed another visit, then another and another. By the end of the morning my notebook was full with no less than a thousand visits. I was exhausted and young Edmund was sweating profusely. 

I looked at Edmund's nebbish expression and, not for the first time, told myself I was really too kind hearted. Here was this child, destined by bloodline to be nothing but a mere gardener, and here was I giving him this once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in a numerological experiment of the highest order. "Whimsley, you sentimentalist", I told myself, "if you deprive the child of a severe and structured environment you're doing him no favours." Yet my soft heart won over. "Take a break, Edmund", I told him, "and as special reward, you don't have to weed the vegetable patch this afternoon, just the flower beds."

"Oh thank you sir."

"Just be ready tomorrow morning. We start bright and early at ten."

I'm such a soft touch. I spent the rest of the day in the conservatory with a well-deserved bottle of scotch, feeling enthused and energised for the first time in months.

Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: Down with Gatekeepers!

[This is the seventh instalment of Mr. Amazon's Bookshop. A list of all instalments is here; the previous instalment is here.]

Edmund, the gardener's son, has the look of a runt about him: he is undersized, has a perpetually dripping nose and a habit of scratching his backside. He is looked down on by the Whimsley village children, which is an achievement in itself: he positively broadcasts stupidity. On the other hand, his is obedient and hardworking, which are important qualities in the servant classes, and has a strong pair of arms so I decided to let him assist me with my investigation.

I dragged Edmund out to the stables on a warm July morning, ready to set the differ to work and send more questions to Mr. Amazon, and with a fresh supply of pencils to record the results in my trusty notebook. I set the young halfwit to start the bellows and he soon worked up a healthy pressure. I turned the dials and tugged the pulleys to set my question, and was about to pull the master lever one more time, when Edmund shouted and pointed up at the stable roof. I followed the line of the simpleton's finger, and saw the topmost reaches of my differ perspiring and shivering, as if with fever. The pistons wailed, the cylinders grated, and then the edifice ground to a juddering halt with an earsplitting thud. The differ was obviously damaged and my investigations were going nowhere soon. I kicked Edmund out of the stables in frustration.

For the next month I searched for parts, scoured manuals, and consulted other differ enthusiasts in an attempt to fix my machine. And while I waited for the postman to bring the replies to my questions I did what I could to keep myself occupied. I even cleaned some of the abandoned rooms in Whimsley Hall, myself. The drawing room I restored to, if not exactly its former stateliness, then at least habitability. The worst of the cobwebs and nests were evicted, and with a solution of vinegar and water I attacked the windows so vigorously that light penetrated the room for the first time in years. Thanks to the previous gloom the velvet drapery and the rich colours of the upholstery were unfaded, but the profuse spattering of stains were too ingrained to be removed. I did not mind. They were part, you might say, of the fabric of the place, and each with its own memory.

When I was too tired to work on Whimsley Hall I walked to the village and back, pacing the bounds of the old estate. With head thrust forward, deep in thought, and with a perpetual frown on my face I was doubtless a forbidding site sight, and I was avoided by most villagers.

It was on one of these walks that I was bumped into, literally, by one of the youngsters I had seen around the village – none other than the pugilistic Jane Austen you may recall from a couple of months earlier. I was walking alongside the river, and seized her by the ear as she attempted to barge past on the narrow pathway.

"Ow! Leggo! Piss off guv'nor!" she bawled, in that endearing manner I have come to know so well in the past few months.

"Not before you tell me your name, young harridan!"

"It's Kylie, innit" she grunted.

"How likely. I'm not convinced at all. You know who I am?"

"Yeah, you're the bloke what lives at the Hall, innit?"

"Seventh Earl of Whimsley, but I will let is pass. You can call me Mr. Whimsley and I'll call you Kylie for now. Now listen, I have some questions for you. I need answers and I'm prepared to pay. Shall we say a hot chocolate at Mr. Horton's? That should pay for fifteen minutes of your time."

"Whatever. Just let go of me bloody ear! And stop writin' me dialogue in that patronizing phonetic bullshit way. It's not like you speak the way it's written."

"Deal. Let's go."

I put her down, and we made our way to Mr. Horton's Coffee Establishment where, once I convinced the proprietor Kylie was not about to steal the contents of the till, we sat and drank a mug of hot chocolate. Kylie was a small and wiry child of about fifteen, with a perpetually sullen expression. I told her that I had overheard her yelling about Mr. Amazon's Bookshop and about her literary ambitions and asked to hear more.

"Look, Mr. Whimsley, I like to write. Always have done, ever since looking after my brothers and sisters when they was real young. I made up stories to keep them from ripping the doors off their hinges. Anything to keep the little buggers quiet. So it became a habit, and I reckon I'm pretty good at it. But there's no way any of those hi-faluting publishers are going to pay attention to me. I have no education worth speaking of, no contacts to call on…"

"And almost certainly no talent. But point taken, go on."

"Well, it's like, Mr. Amazon is an odd fish, but I can get the books I like at his shop so I go there sometimes and then one day he told me that if I had written anything I could just give it to him and he'd sell it, just like he sells the other books. Isn't that amazing?"

"It certainly sounds attractive. And have you taken him up on his generous offer?"

"You bet! I mean, at first I was pretty suspicious and figured he just wanted to rob me of my just rewards, but I had a word with Mr. Anderson – he's a bloke that lives down our street – and he told me it's OK. He said Mr. Amazon's way better than those other bookshops for me because they're all elitist institutions and Mr. Amazon's on my side. He said something else really weird too…" (here she looked around and lowered her voice) "He told me that Mr. Amazon's got a long tail. And that made me think I've only ever seen him from the front, and I can't look over the desk. So maybe it's true! What do you think?"

"Oh I doubt that", was my first reaction, "but come to think of it I, too, see him only from the front. And he does have a certain reptilian quality."

"Anyway", Kylie carried on, "I finished my book a few weeks ago. It's called The Adventures of Wazzock. It's about a boy who finds a polished blue stone in a mountain chain near his home. He discovers that his stone is really a dragon egg when it hatches suddenly in the night. Wazzock gives his dragon the name Saphira, which he learns from the village storyteller. After the dragon hatches the King sends his servants after Wazzock and Saphira, in an effort to capture or kill them. Wazzock and Saphira flee their hometown and embark on a number of adventures involving swordplay, magic, friendship, betrayal, and death."

"I'm sure they do. Very good, very good. And how is it going?"

"It's great. It's only been a few weeks, but I've already sold five copies."

"Really! And who to?"

"Well, there's my brother and my mum, and then my friend Sharon, and then two boys in my class. Of course, I told them I'd beat them up if they didn't buy it. That's called marketing."

"And is he selling your book at any of his other shops, or just here in Whimsley?"

"He's selling it…", here her voice dropped to a hushed whisper, "…all over the world. Anywhere you go, you could walk into a Mr. Amazon and ask for The Adventures of Wazzock and he'll sell it to you. Right then and there. Isn't that amaaziing??!! It's just me and my audience. No gatekeepers! It's just like Mr. Anderson said. I'm alread
y working on my next book, so I'm ready once Wazzock goes viral."

"Admirable. Admirable. Now that's enough young Kylie. I may have need of you again. I have obviously underestimated both you and Mr. Amazon. You have given me much to think on. Off you go."

She grabbed my half-eaten doughnut and waltzed out of the door, looking far too pleased with herself. I pondered, is this how it works? Is this the new world? Are "real" bookshops a thing of the past? Perhaps – the idea filled me with dread – despite all my effort at staying up to date, I am not quite as au courant as I like to think. Maybe – notwithstanding my natural flair for the common touch – I am a touch elitist at heart? And could it be that – however maverick I may be in my soul – there is a waft of conservatism that has settled over me in my middle age?

My personal doubts about Mr. Amazon carried over into these broader concerns that I, as a member of the gentry, have such a duty to worry over. Does Mr. Amazon really give any book a chance at success, as young Kylie claims? Is he really an agent in the quest for a more democratic, more varied and diverse culture? Or is he, perhaps, a gatekeeper just as effective as those publishing houses the local hooligans scorn? And is he hiding a long tail behind that desk of his?

Disturbing thoughts. I obviously needed to find out more. My investigation of Amazon seemed to be growing more urgent at every turn, but until the replacement parts for my differ arrived I was stalled. My impatience was, I am sure, almost as intense as yours, waiting for the next episode of my story…

Mr. Amazon’s Bookshop: The Differ

[This is the sixth instalment of Mr. Amazon's Bookshop. A list of all instalments is here; the previous instalment is here.]

I rocketed over to my stables at the crack of noon and cleaned up the old difference engine, or differ as we enthusiasts call it. My friend Mr. Babbage, you will recall, had told me that Mr. Amazon had a new trick – instead of going to Mr. Amazon's Bookshop, one could use a difference engine to ask him as many questions as you like. I determined to use my differ to interrogate Amazon and better understand how his intriguing operation works.

I had to chase out a few voles and a cat that had set up house in among the levers and pistons, and it was nearly dinner time before I fired up the bellows and the great machine began to hum. It had been some while since I last set it going and the smell of burning dust was atrocious. But finally I was able to start communing with it, and I readied my questions.

My first query to Mr. Amazon's service was a simple one, and harked back to my earliest visit. "If I tell you I like 
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, what books would you recommend?" 

I twisted and turned the knobs until the instructions were in place, and then pulled on the master lever to set the machine to work. Steam hissed, a piercing high-pitched whine drilled at my ear drums, and for a moment I thought the whole thing was going to explode. What could be going on? I was sure I had the instructions right. I pulled harder on the lever, hoping to blow past the obstruction, but to no use. The temperature reading was creeping dangerously high and I cast about for what was wrong. Finally I caught sight of a large beetle stuck in one of the outlet valves, obstructing the flow of air. I pulled at the release lever, shutting down the process, and watched in relief as the temperature lowered.

Once I had cleaned out the valves, I took a swig from the sherry bottle and pulled the master lever again. "If I tell you I like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, what books would you recommend?" And this time, after a few scraping noises, the output pointers began to swing. A short while deciphering and I had my answer:

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
… and a handful of others.

I was thrilled. I stared at the list, entranced, until a thought crawled into my awareness. Here, it said, was the link between Mr. Amazon's Bookshop and what I think of as a real bookshop.

Mr. Amazon's is not a bookshop. It is closer to the truth to say it is a mechanism, a differ if you like, that we each use to generate our own personal bookshop, with shelves and all, by the questions we ask of its proprietor. I had accused Mr. Amazon of not having shelves, but here was a set of books grouped together as I looked at Special Topics… Surely that is close enough to a shelf.

I chose one of the ten recommendations at random by the usual method of throwing a barnyard cat at the wall and counting the number of squeals it emitted. The cat squealed twice to indicate 
The Yiddish Policeman's Union (occasionally the cat does not scream, so the counting starts at zero). and I sent up my second question to Mr. Amazon. "If I tell you I like The Yiddish Policeman's Union, what books would you recommend?" A moment later, back came the answer:
The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay (also by Michael Ch
Gentlemen of the Road by, you guessed it, Michael Chabon.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
… and a handful of others.

The shelf is longer, I muttered. Quickly I flung the cat again to select a book from the list (
Falling Man, by Don DeLillo) and sent off the next query.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
… and a handful of others.

This could go on indefinitely, I realised. There is no point in simply asking over and over again for recommended books. Sooner or later people stop browsing and either buy a book or leave the shop. I decided to cap the number of requests at a random number (poor cat) between 1 and 20 – 12 on this occasion – and then listed in my notebook each of the dozen books I had picked from among the recommendations. Here is that list:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel (P.S.)
Falling Man: A Novel
Tree of Smoke: A Novel
Bridge of Sighs: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (Oprah Book Club #62)
The Art of Racing in the Rain
The Beach House
Chasing Harry Winston: A Novel
Remember Me?
Love the One You're With

That, I decided, looked like one visit to Mr. Amazon's shop. Each book selected from the list was one I had "picked up" and skimmed (at least those parts Mr. Amazon lets me see). Moving along shelves, picking books up that are not too far from the place you stand. There was an undeniable similarity, albeit a pale imitation of the casual, unpredictable and whimsical act of browsing in what I still thought of as a "real" bookshop.

I decided to simulate a second visit. I know Mr. Amazon would have a few recommendations waiting for me, based on my previous visits, so I cat-picked one from the list of books I had "picked up" (Falling Man: A Novel) and generated a second list of books:

Falling Man: A Novel
Divisadero (Vintage International)
The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel (P.S.)
Falling Man: A Novel
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Tree of Smoke: A Novel
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
The Post-American World
The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order
The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East
The Return of History and the End of Dreams
Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World, from it's Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century
Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East

Some books, I noticed, were appearing again and again. Who on earth, I wondered, is this Oscar Wao whose brief wondrous life is appearing in all the lists I generate? And what is this Falling Man? I had heard of neither, yet Mr. Amazon seemed to be pushing them at me insistently. And how had I got from a literary mystery to what looked like nonfiction books about the near Orient? There was so much to think about in these lists that I copied the second list into my notebook and headed to my library to think, telling Google to bring me some smoked kippers, Turkish coffee, and the latest copy of the Literary Review. He bowed obsequiously, but not quickly enough to hide the supercilious smirk he sometimes gives, as if he knows not only what problems I seek to solve but the answers too. But this quest was becoming my own, and I did not want his help.

It was Jennie the one-legged housekeeper who climbed the worn stone steps of the western wing to my library in the turret, bringing the kippers, a wet copy of the Literary Review, and a half-empty cup of luke-warm coffee. It is most inconvenient that she is crippled and I shall have to do something about it – perhaps reassign her to the kitchen where she does not have to move about so much? But this is not the time to indulge myself in such sentimental nonsense, I told myself. My warm heart and generous nature is so well known locally that I fear they are often taken advantage of. I must make myself of sterner stuff. So I dismissed Jennie and turned to the Review.

First, those two books. It turns out they were not so obscure as I thought. Falling Man is written by that impetuous youngster Don DeLillo, author of Underworld. And Oscar Wao won something called a Pulitzer Prize, that is apparently worthy of note in the provinces. Amazon, I was slightly chuffed to realise, was showing me books that were new to me, but – despite what I am often told is my encyclopedic knowledge – far from obscure. I could probably pick up either of those volumes at Words Worth or at Heather's Big House O'Books.

And how did we get from Special Topics to The Arab Israeli Wars? Via The Falling Man, it seems. That book is a literary novel (and so linked to Special Topics) and yet is concerned with terrorism, and so leads us into other books about warfare and terrorism. Not too far-fetched, I thought, and yet ingenious.

As I stretched in front of the library fire, the warmth and my exhertions combined to induce a sluggish drowsiness. I drifted in and out of a doze, my mind filled with pictures of endless lists of books, on topics leaping from terrorism to gourmet cooking to accounting in a few bounds. How could I impose some kind of order on this profligacy? What can one learn from this spewing of titles? How does Mr. Amazon impose order? He must, I was convinced, have some mechanism for governing the labours of those poor, enslaved mole-people deep in his basement-factories.

Just before my dozing turned to sleep, I remembered one nugget of information that had come back along with the title in response to my requests – the SalesRank. This, I knew, is Mr. Amazon's seller list. But unlike a real best seller list, it does not stop at a mere ten or so items. Instead, as seems typical of Mr. Amazon's industrious nature, it goes on and on into the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, each book with its rank. That, I decided, would be the starting point for my next investigation.