Tame Your Amazon Suggestions

I used to be in a book club that mostly switched between beach books and self-help stuff. Sometimes I enjoyed those once-a-month reads out of my comfort zone, and it’s always good to try new things. But after a year or so of searching for and buying those outlier books, Amazon started to think I was deeply into diet memoirs and contemporary melodramas set in Nantucket. Something had to be done.

After poking around in the site options, I figured out how to wrangle my suggestions back into shape. Here’s a guide for anyone else who’d like to try the same thing.

Nuke your Browsing History

My most off-kilter Amazon suggestions come from books I looked at but didn’t buy. These may have been recommendations from friends, links from book blogs, or search mistakes. There are plenty of reasons to look at book pages that don’t include “I love this book and want to see recommendations based around it,” and Amazon usually seems to recognize that. But over time, all that random browsing can skew what you’re seeing on the site.

Go to Amazon and make sure you’re logged in. Under the search bar, follow the link that says “Browsing History” and scroll down for awhile. If you spot anything you’re still interested in, you can add it to your cart or a wishlist. But ninety percent of that list will be books you don’t want or widgets you don’t need.

Back near the top of the page there’s a “Manage History” link, and when you click that, it gives you a button to “Remove All Items.” Using that button a couple of times a year has drastically improved my Amazon experience. The site will still show you plenty of recommendations, they’ll just be based on things you’ve actually bought. And if you like that fresh-slate feeling but don’t want to have to remember to clear your history, that same menu has an option to turn off the browsing history feature on your account.

Tweak your recommendations.

Once you’ve taken care of your browsing history, it’s time to tackle Amazon’s other big source of suggestions: your purchase history and other activity on the site.

Hover over the “Account & Lists” menu beneath your name, select “Your Recommendations” and then follow the “Improve Your Recommendations” link near the top of that page. This shows your purchase history, which will let you rate items you’ve bought, mark purchases as a gift, or tell Amazon not to use that item for recommendations.

If you’ve been using Amazon for awhile, there’s no need to go through your entire list. The site seems to recommend more heavily based on recent purchases than long-ago ones, and the things you actually bought are going to be less random than your browsing history was.

I usually go back 5-6 months and tell Amazon not to recommend to me based on book club buys, gifts for friends, and some of my free kindle downloads. I also rate the books I liked the most, which gives the site a better idea of what I might be interested in.

Look over the results.

After you’re finished poking around in your purchase history, near the top of the page there’s a link to your “Recommended For You” page. Going through the previous steps should have helped fill this page with more things you’d actually like to read.

If you spot recommendations that are really off, you can tell the site that you’re not interested in the listed item. You can also click “fix this” to get straight at the reason that it’s being suggested. If you’re seeing a lot of things pop up that you’ve bought elsewhere (or borrowed from the library), then click “I own it” and rate the book.

It doesn’t take that long to wrangle your suggestions back into shape, especially if you remember to check your suggestions list every few months. Still, I’m happy that my current book club has more eclectic taste…

Reading Goals for 2018

On average, I read about ninety books a year. I pick them a bit randomly though, grabbing new releases from favorite authors and then anything else that catches my eye.

While I sometimes find new things to read by wandering the bookstore, it’s more common for me to hear about books through blogs, newsletters, or social media. These can be really great tools, but I’ve started to think about how relying on the same handful of sources has limited the types of things I hear about.

After looking at my book lists from the past few years, I mostly read genre novels by straight, white American authors. I tend to read more books by women than men, partly because I like female protagonists and fewer men write those.

So for 2018, I’m going to try to diversify my reading. I’m going to read more books by minority and LGBT authors, more books by authors who aren’t from the US or UK, and more nonfiction. I’ll also be looking for a few more novels outside my regular set of genres. My goal is to have these kinds of choices make up at least forty percent of my yearly total.

I feel like there are a lot of really interesting stories out there I’m just not being exposed to. And while the same can probably be said for any avid reader, I want to do my best to work on some of those blind spots.

An End to My Book Diet

Between last September and December, I went on a book diet. Anything I’d preordered before then was still fair game, but other than that, I tried not to buy any books. No popping in to my local shop for that new thing I’d just heard about. No long, slow used bookstore hauls. It’s been a pretty dramatic change in my behavior.

I did end up getting one small-press novella (that has since sold out) and a cheap used copy of something from of an author I’m collecting. But overall, I stuck with it surprisingly well.

The idea behind the book diet was to give myself time to work through my existing to-read list, but once I stopped buying books, I realized I was grabbing more random picks than usual from the library. So while I did get around to some of my backlog,  I also learned that I seem to have some need for novelty when it comes to book selections.

A visit to the library is easier on my poor, straining shelf space than hitting up the bookstore, so from that perspective, the book diet was a success. But I still need to work on prioritizing some of the books I already have over the ones that I don’t.


The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that I thought I knew all about long before I read it. (I was totally wrong.) Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s been adapted enough times that you might be familiar with the basics of the story.

The hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, travels to a small, isolated European country because he’s curious about its connection to an old family scandal. He meets the new king, who’s a distant cousin, and the two are nearly identical. When the king gets poisoned the night before the coronation, Rudolf takes his place to keep the throne from going to a popular rival. And then there are hijinks.

The Prisoner of Zenda, illustration by Charles Dana Gibson“God save the King!”

Old Sapt’s mouth wrinkled into a smile.

“God save ’em both!” he whispered.

It’s got everything I look for in an adventure novel: sword fights, romance, double-crosses, a scene-stealing villain, snappy dialogue, and more sword fights. There’s some depth to it too, though. Rudolf faces down most of the temptations of ruling a nation, but another character is forced to remind him that he isn’t the only one with a duty to fulfill. And while he overcomes a lot of obstacles by being brave, smart, or good at stabbing things, the bad guys still might have won if they hadn’t completely misjudged Rudolf’s motives.

Since Rudolf is a first-person protagonist, we get this great balance of bravado and vulnerability from him. He’s risking a lot for a man he just met, and some of the king’s critics have valid concerns about his rule. But Rudolf begins the book by telling his sister in law that “to a man of spirit… opportunities are duties.” He’s the only person with a chance at making things right, and if he fails, the princess he’s fallen for will be forced to marry a traitor.

I can’t say a thing about the ending without spoiling it, although to me it felt like things wrapped up in the only way they could.

zenda cover

I have a beautiful old copy with illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, but you can get The Prisoner of Zenda for free in various ebook formats.

The sequel is a little trickier, but I’m totally in love with that one too. I’ll explain why once I’ve had a chance to read it again.

Book Diet – 2017

I’ve always been that reader who can’t pass a used bookstore without going in, and I’ve had to set a firm one-bag limit during my county’s yearly library sale. But when I reorganized a few shelves late last August, I finally realized just how many unread novels I had lying around.

Some of them I recognized right away. There was a short stack of vintage fantasy I picked up at the thrift store down the street and a couple of larger piles of adventure hardbacks from estate sales. I found a book that I borrowed a few months before, two dirt-cheap ebay purchases, and a handful of wild looking picks from this $1 book warehouse in the area.

But there were other books that I’d completely forgotten about. Why did I have two copies of Joseph Conrad’s Victory? And why had I ever thought I’d read those sleazy-looking spy novels? Yes, the lead character is apparently a “Killmaster,” which is hilarious, but skimming the first few pages makes it obvious that those books are never going to be my thing.

It was definitely time for another book diet. I stopped buying books in September, and the plan is to keep that up through December. In the meantime, I’m working on my to-read piles and grabbing new releases from the library. I didn’t cancel anything I cared enough about to preorder, and I might bend the rules if I hear about some really limited edition that’s sure to sell out before the new year. But other than that, I’m not buying books.

Thanks to some strange law of the universe that makes every one of my library holds come in at once, I haven’t gotten through as much of my book stash as I planned to. But now that I know exactly how many unread books I have lying around, it should be easier to resist some of my more questionable book-buying impulses. Maybe next year I’ll just skip the library sale.

Horror Stories You Can Read Online

If you’re looking for something to get you in the Halloween spirit before this weekend’s round of costume parties and horror movie marathons, try one of these:

The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allan Poe
I love the tight focus and the thoroughly cold-blooded narrator, and I’ve always wondered what Fortunato did to provoke such a drastic reaction.

The Yellow Wall Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I like this story best when I imagine that the ending wasn’t inevitable, that things would have gone differently if only anyone had listened. Point-of-view madness makes it the scariest one of the bunch.

The Mask, by Robert W. Chambers
Art and alchemy have tragic effects on a love triangle. This one went in a different direction than I expected, but my inner mean person wishes it had ended a little sooner.

The Haunter of the Ring, by Robert E. Howard
After a meeting with friends provokes a strange reaction, one of the characters explains that he’s afraid of an inherited curse. This story hooked me quick and kept the twists coming.

For maximum effectiveness, be sure to read these in a dark room during a thunderstorm.