This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

January 28, 2001 — Isn't it great that the world's biggest bookseller — — has an easy–to–use "search" facility that helps you track down that book you can't remember the title of? All you have to do is type in the author's name and bingo! There it is!

For example, say you want to read some short stories by one of our best story writers — Tobias Wolff. To get his titles, all you have to do is type in "Tobias Wolff" on the teeny tiny little "search" screen on Amazon's home page, hit the button and in just moments it will tell you what books by Wolff they have in their — well that's funny. I just tried it as I was writing this and it came back with "The Complete Beethoven Secular Vocal Works." Hmm. I'm pretty sure Wolff didn't write that.

Okay, seems I merely forgot to tell the search engine to search the books database. See, even though Amazon is known primarily as a bookstore they sell all kinds of stuff. Earlier today, for example, I bought a Toyota Camry by mistake.

So I adjust the search area to "books" and press the button again and — dern. Now the screen says, "We were unable to find exact matches for your search." It suggests, instead, "The Wolf of Haskel Hall," which I don't know what that is, or "The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need," by Andrew Tobias.

Yikes. Our biggest bookseller has never heard of our most prominent short story writer? Then I realize I left a second "f" off "Wolff." My bad, as our minimalist athletes would say! Still, that seems a little picky to me. I had ten out of the eleven letters of his name. In order, I might add.

Anyway, I adjust to "books," type in the name precisely, and viola! I get a complete list of Wolff's books. Plus, it's still daylight out.

Okay, so that one was a little tricky. Wolff is pretty famous — I mean, they made a Leo DiCaprio movie out of one of his books! — but when you're a short story writer you don't get the respect you deserve.

It's almost like being a poet, but not quite. Being a poet in America is a lesson in obscurity. For example, when I type in one of my favorites, David Lehman, I get the "unable to find" screen, even though I double–check and I've got his name spelled right. Scary! He's not only one of our most famous poets, he's editor of the annual "Best American Poetry" series. He's also written some well–known books of nonfiction. In fact, he's got his name on the cover of over twenty books. No trace of him in Amazon's database, though. Instead, they suggest three other books that have nothing in common except they're written by guys named David.

Of course, the Obscurity Law can be even harder than that on critics. When I type in the name of one of my favorite book critics, James Wood, who had a widely–discussed book out last year that I can't remember the name of, I get back "Eye of the Beast: The True Story of Serial Killer James Wood." Maybe he's an even harsher critic than I realized.

But it occurs to me that perhaps my tastes are too snooty. I am, after all, the owner of a Toyota Camry. Maybe it would be better to evaluate the Amazon search engine by typing in the name of a really famous writer, an author of classics, and one with a more unusual name — somebody like, say, original one–name celebrity Stendahl, author of "The Red and the Black" and other books people have been forced to read for centuries.

The results? Who'da thunk it? There are a lot of writers named "Stendahl." In fact, the Amazon search engine returned a list of twenty–five books, none of them written by our man, including books by a religious author named Krister Stendahl, money-management writer David Stendahl, biographer Brita Stendahl, and a cookbook author who also goes by just "Stendahl" . . . and who, I suddenly realize, has made the same mistake I have: It's Stendhal, not Stendahl.


Well, at least when I typed in my hero, Herman Melville, author of the most famous American book of all, "Moby–Dick," I got a first–time bingo. Amazon listed his "Billy Budd" on top of the resultant list, followed, of course, by "Sally Melville Styles: A Unique and Elegant Approach for Your Yarn Collection," by Sally Melville.

I think I'll go for a drive in my Toyota Camry now.

Last Week’s Column: SELF-PUBLISH AND PERISH There are bad ways to flak your own book, and then there are hopeless ways.


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