Better Together?

by John Holbo on September 1, 2006

I don’t know how long this will last so I took a screencap.

Yes, that’s right. Amazon’s book bundling AI has determined, for reasons best known to itself, that Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? goes best with Alan Moore’s Lost Girls Collected. Ah, we always knew THAT was what was liberal about the liberal arts. Porn! High concept porn! This can only provide terrible confirmation of Ross Douthat’s worst fears.

Honestly, I’d be so honored if a book I wrote went better with something by Alan Moore. Maybe he can write, like, The League of Extraordinarily Liberal Gentlemen next.



PLN 09.01.06 at 10:53 am

That is so very, very awesome. Berube must be ecstatic.


Rich 09.01.06 at 10:56 am

I assume the connection would be more useful for book sales if it went in the other direction.

Personally, however, I am more concerned by the colon immediately following the question mark in the Amazon’s version of the book title.


peter ramus 09.01.06 at 11:10 am

This bundling is “arbitrary but fun,” isn’t it? Professor Bérubé will be pleased, no doubt.


Michael Bérubé 09.01.06 at 11:29 am

More than pleased — stupefied! Having never (to my knowledge) cracked the 100,000 barrier in the Amazon rankings before, I had no idea what kinds of literary exogamy were possible once you get into the high-four and low-five digits. At the moment, my “Customers Who Bought” company appears to include Sean Wilentz, Ron Suskind, Glenn Greenwald, and the Dixie Chicks. Very heady stuff. But apparently I go best with Alan Moore . . . for now, anyway.

Thanks for the screencap, John! I will treasure it always.


Seth Finkelstein 09.01.06 at 2:41 pm

Hmm … that’s pretty interesting, from a data-mining viewpoint.

“Ah, we always knew THAT was what was liberal about the liberal arts. Porn! High concept porn!”

You’re saying that like it’s absurd. But in fact, the program is saying something close, though a little more focused: People who like popular academic defenses of liberalism in the culture wars, also like literary porn by cool writers.

Stated that way, it’s not exactly obscure – but it is amusing. It’s the equivalent of “Would you like a National Public Radio subscription with that?”


Bethany Bryson 09.01.06 at 2:44 pm

Michael, Tell us honestly. You did it, didn’t you?


Rasselas 09.01.06 at 3:56 pm

I wonder whether Alan Moore, high-school dropout, would like being stitched to America’s crazy quilt o’ resentments in this particular respect.


Anderson 09.01.06 at 4:40 pm

I think this tells us more about what Amazon thinks of Holbo’s preferences than about any Amazonian evaluation of the books themselves.

(Um, *reading* preferences, of course.)

Books are to Amazon what words are to a computer–black boxes whose contents are unknown, but which can be evaluated by their relations with other black boxes.


Michael Bérubé 09.01.06 at 5:46 pm

Bethany, if there’s one thing I learned from Neuromancer, it’s never to mess with an AI.

And Seth, if you could send along back issues of evergreen with my subscription to NPR, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks!


Crystal 09.01.06 at 6:39 pm

It’s not just John’s preferences – I logged into Amazon, typed in the title and voila! I, too, can buy Berube and Moore in one swell foop if I wanted to. Never mind that I don’t make a habit of buying porn or comics through Amazon. Somehow Berube and Moore have become linked in the Amazonian mind. Interesting.


John Holbo 09.01.06 at 7:46 pm

Yes, I should have made clearer in the post that it isn’t a function of my preferences. (It wouldn’t be funny if it were just me.) I’m pretty sure it must be more or less a fluke. It can’t take that many people buying x + y to catch amazon’s lidless eye.


Seth Finkelstein 09.01.06 at 9:03 pm

It’s not a fluke – it’s a local maxima of correlation.

If the algorithm works as I suspect it does, it’s perfectly understandable.

Take all the high-ranking books which were also bought by people who bought “What’s Liberal …”

We have: [Politics, Political History, Literary Porn, Current Events, Hot Protest Band]

Not exactly a surprising list.

Of that list, which is going to be the *highest* ranking seller? (highest margin?)

Answer: Literary Porn.

And, in fact, it’s *right*. You don’t think it’s right, because politics is not supposed to mix with porn as a related subject, and that’s how you’re reading the recommendation. But in terms of, if you like X, you might like Y (without considering if X and Y are in similar topic classifications), the result is correct.


John Holbo 09.01.06 at 11:45 pm

Sorry, I was unclear. By ‘fluke’ I did mean something like ‘local maxima of correlation’. That is, it doesn’t surprise me that this happened. But it still amuses me that this happened.

Like: it doesn’t surprise me that so many people I know own BOTH a copy of Kant’s First Critique AND a copy of Spiegelman’s Maus. It’s a bookish academic humanities culture thing. But if I were to see the two books RIGHT NEXT to each other on several people’s shelves, that would be sort of a fluke. Anyhoo.


bad Jim 09.02.06 at 2:54 am

It’s true. If you click on Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, a fantasy on the contemplation of the assassination of someone of whom the wretched of the earth would happily be rid, you get links to books which are avowedly pornographic, however lamentably Victorian. Vox. Fermata. Stuff that may leave stains.


ajay 09.04.06 at 6:34 am

And are also written by Nicholson Baker, correct? Seems to me the link there is a bit more direct than “liberal politics – smut”.


Shelby 09.04.06 at 12:38 pm

One wonders what Alan Moore thinks about this.


Anderson 09.04.06 at 2:11 pm

One wonders what Alan Moore thinks about this.

It’s a safe bet that he’s not happy about it, since Moore isn’t happy about much of anything.

Apologies to Holbo, who it seems really is a garden-variety liberal perv and not any more specialized kind … ;)


perianwyr 09.04.06 at 3:57 pm

I hope I’m not the only one who can’t stand the art in Lost Girls. It makes me think I’m reading the masturbatory fantasies of a rather precocious 10-year-old, which then makes me immediately close the book. I imagine it might have been intentionally that way, in which case it’s even worse.

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