One day this summer, my friend Richard and I masked up and headed to the Amazon Books store here in Austin. He had picked up a reading habit and was looking for a Kindle and needed some consulting on the purchase. I also hadn’t left the square mile around my house in many months and will really never turn down a trip to the bookstore, even in a pandemic.
I know Amazon as a whole is problematic, I know indie bookstores are obviously better, but the Amazon Books store is fascinating to me. Partly because it has a sad irony to its existence. Wiping out bookstores to create a bookstore seems dastardly. But I also find it fascinating because the Amazon Books store is very small. It’s maybe 1/10th the size of the nearest Barnes & Noble. Each section may only contain a couple dozen titles, but they’re all the best of the best that genre has to offer based on Amazon’s massive amounts of data trends. It’s algorithmically-distilled book genre concentrate. There’s even a “Popular in Austin” shelf that I assume leverages raw purchase data aggregated by zip code. It strips book browsing of some intimacy but I find the data-driven inventory a refreshing casual consumer experience. A bookstore where stale stock gets whisked away to a warehouse reduces a lot of cognitive load and choice paralysis. Sure, no crusty, old wizard is going to appear from behind a shelf and offer me a life-changing tome, but browsing book covers is easier than browsing book spines.
My typical routine in the Amazon Books store is to meander through the aisles take pictures of book covers that interest me. It takes ten’ish minutes to browse the whole store and then, having seen everything in the everything store, I leave empty-handed. That’s right. No commerce occurs. Then when I get home I look those titles up on Libby (my library app) or Libra.fm (an audiobook provider that supports my local bookstore, Bookpeople). It’s the perfect crime: a retail therapy grift.
This, however, is not a review about a rampantly untaxed tech company turned brick-and-mortar retailer. It’s about goals. Last year, after some frustrating experiences with managers, I came across a list of books on management and decided to try and read most of them. I didn’t know how far I’d get, but I made good progress on my goal of 20 books and have read about 14 of the books on that original list of 39 (70% goal progress / 36% total progress), reading other books along the way.
While I’ve been tracking my reading on my bookshelf and know exactly how much I’ve read, I didn’t feel the result of that until I went into that Amazon Books store that day and saw their bookshelves. In the business books aisle I no longer saw an overwhelming todo list; I saw a line of familiar faces. I had read most of the titles and the ones I hadn’t are very much on my radar. I crossed a threshold where now I felt like I had experienced most of the books on this shelf. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about a bookstore or a bookshelf in my whole life —even shelves of books in my own house!— and it gave me a healthy sense of accomplishment.
It’s possible I’ll never feel that feeling again, but without a doubt this reading and audiobook habit has paid off for me. It’s kept my mind curious about a myriad of topics. I’ve learned about war, about love, about justice, about mercy, about fantastic futures, about inescapable pasts, about businesses improved, about a country divided, about politicians I like, and a lot about a single narcissist I despise. A little bit of persistence and a little bit of ambition go a long way.
(Tracking my reading on my own site helped too. Behold, the power of personal websites!)