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How Amazon Has Made Book Searches Less Useful

Time was, you could search for obscure books on Amazon and find them easily. Back in the day, before eBooks and print-on-demand (PoD) books, the number of search results was more limited, and it was easier to find what you’re looking for. In recent times, however, Amazon has ruined their book search results by trying to give too much.

This isn’t a problem if you’re looking for, say Stephen King. This search helps you find his latest novel pretty quickly.

But if you’re looking for more obscure books – especially books in the public domain – you are presented with a confusing list of hundreds, even thousands of books, and it’s very hard to sort them.

Look at this search for Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first book that displays is a PoD book. Next comes a link to a page about the author, followed by a Kindle edition of Nature. (Your search results may vary, and Amazon searches change regularly according to what is sold.)

Scrolling down, only a handful of print books – real print books, not PoD books at exorbitant prices display. Now, it’s easy to choose to only view, say, paperbacks, by clicking in the Format menu in the left sidebar. But you can only choose one format; you can’t choose to look at, say, paperbacks and hardcovers. In addition, you can’t filter out PoD books. No matter how you search, they will pollute your results. Of course, since Amazon owns CreateSpace – a PoD production company – it’s in their interest to tout these books.

For some subjects, languages can get in the way. Amazon.com sells books in many languages – though they seem to have more in the major Romance languages – and you’ll find them in your search results. You can, at least, choose a specific language for your search, again in the sidebar.

Add to this confusion the fact that Amazon applies reader reviews to any edition of a specific book. So, Emerson’s Essays: First Series, which shows at the top of the list in my search, includes reviews that are not necessarily written about the specific edition you are looking at.

Amazon is very efficient at selling multiple versions of public domain books, but they sell so many now that readers can be flustered when searching for them. Since the search results don’t take into account the actual worth of the books – editions from reputable publisher, for example – the dreck floats to the top of the list. It’s time for Amazon to improve searching, so users can filter out all of that, and find the books worth buying. And they need to stop favoring their own CreateSpace books, which is an anti-competitive practice.

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Book Review: The Annotated Emerson

When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.

With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.

On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.

Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.

Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.

This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.

In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.

In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)

I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.

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Books I Want: Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve got lots of books; probably too many. But there are some books that I’d like to own, bu I simply cannot afford. My tastes are varied: from Stephen King to Henry David Thoreau, by way of Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Robert B. Parker, Peter Robinson, Robertson Davies, William Shakespeare, and much more.

But one of my favorite authors is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was one of America’s finest thinkers, and reading his essays, lectures and journals is one of my favorite pleasures. I have a couple of editions of the journals: the recent two-volume Library of America selection; a 1909 ten-volume edition, which is a different selection from what, at the time, was a relatively un-scholarly edition, and a few paperback books that offer selections from the journals, both from early editions and from the 16-volume Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson published by Harvard University Press.

This scholarly edition, published between 1960 and 1982, is the ultimate edition of Emerson journals. It is a true scholarly edition, with all changes, corrections, deletions and other details noted carefully. (You can see an example on Google Books.) They contain much more than just the journals themselves, but also contain the “Miscellaneous Notebooks,” which include drafts of Emerson’s lectures and essays.

In any case, I’m not planning to buy them soon, but found a complete set online from a German bookseller at a price well below list. Tempting, but it’s still way above my budget for now. But this is a series I’d like to get, and I may try looking for used copies of the individual volumes online.

Update: I have since purchased this set, at great expense, and I have been delighting in reading Emerson’s “raw” thoughts now for several months. You can see some of my favorite excerpts on my Emerson website Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For those who want a taste of Emerson’s journals or other works, particularly in much more affordable editions, see my Emerson bibliography.

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Book Notes: First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson

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Robert Richardson is a brilliant man, and an excellent writer. He is the author of three biographies that will stand for decades as the essential works on the thinkers he explores: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. (These are three of the four American thinkers I appreciate most; I only wish he would write a biography about the fourth, Henry James.)

Richardson is especially attuned to the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might be considered America’s ur-philosopher. In this diminutive book, Richardson looks at Emerson’s writing, and uses him as an example for a style that some other writers may want to emulate. (I say “may”, because Emerson’s style is not for everyone, nor for all types of prose.) Using examples from Emerson’s essays and journals, Richardson gives suggestions about effective writing, but this is not a how-to book. It is more a brief overview (in only about 80 pages) of Emerson’s writing and thought.

This is an essential read for anyone who writes for a living, whether they appreciate Emerson or not. Understanding why Emerson’s writing works can help better appreciate many elements of writing in English. And, perhaps, it may help those who are unfamiliar with Emerson’s work discover his wonderful words and thoughts.

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