I guess I haven’t been on Amazon in a while. For books of which you can search the text on its site, Amazon now has three “readability” scores based on different criteria. The site also tells you how many characters, words, and sentences are in a book. You may learn how many words are in a book’s average sentence, and you may learn how many syllables are in a book’s average word. These statistics promise to revolutionize book shopping.
Readability and syllable counts are just the beginning, however. Amazon has “fun stats,” which include how many words you get per dollar spent. This is bad news for me, because my book gives you a paltry 510 words per dollar. No one looking for a lot of words is going to look at my book. In comparison, the Penguin Classics edition of War and Peace gives you 51,707 words per dollar. Tolstoy is offering you over one hundred times more words for each of your hard-earned dollars than I am. Better quality and quantity.
Or so you would think. It turns out that book shopping is not the only thing Amazon’s new statistics will revolutionize. With these numbers, Amazon now offers us a more sophisticated, objective, and statistics-driven means of assessing great literature. Let’s examine the numbers more closely.
My book and War and Peace both employ words with a fairly high syllable count – we’re both at 1.5 syllables per word. (Some of this may not be Tolstoy’s fault, admittedly, since his translator may have a penchant for big English words.) My sentences, though, are almost half the size of Tolstoy’s. Mine average 12.7 words, while his bloated sentences – 21.4 words, on average – befit his fat, overweening novel.
And what kind of words? Amazon tells us that the word “said” appears more often than any other word in War and Peace, probably because of Tolstoy’s over-reliance on dialog. Compare that to my book, where “God” is the most predominant word. I think it’s easy to conclude which book is more profound and – dare I suggest it? – which book is more likely to stand up over time.
Tolstoy’s novel says “said” 2,457 times. Didn’t our middle school teachers teach us to employ more descriptive ways of saying “said”? Where’s the old imagination? What about “exclaimed,” “murmured,” “cried,” even “pondered out loud,” for crying out loud?
Let’s see if we can freshen up some of Tolstoy’s stale prose. Here’s a sentence from page 45 in the Penguin edition:
“Yes, my dear,” said the old count, addressing the visitor and pointing to Nikolai, “his friend Boris here has been given his commission, so for friendship’s sake my Nikolai throws up the University and deserts his old father to go in the army.”
What’s that, 43 words? Who does he think he is, William Faulkner? If he does, he’s one word short, since Absalom, Absalom! averages 44 words per sentence. I might point out that only 8% of Absalom, Absalom!’s words are complex – compare that to Tolstoy’s soaring 12% “complex word” rate.
Since Amazon has made us all peers, let’s help Tolstoy with a little peer editing. We’ll work on his “said” thing, the word count, and the word complexity. While we’re at it, we’ll help him with his prolix sentences and the pretentious foreign words that serve only as barriers between the reader and the text. We’ll replace his tired diction with some of our descriptive words.
“Yes, my dear,” mimed the vampire, talking sinisterly at the newbie while jabbing his gnarled, stubby finger at Nick. “Yes, yes.”
The rest of Tolstoy’s sentence makes little sense, so it isn’t worth salvaging.
Amazon’s “Fog Index” applies the finishing touches to any claim War and Peace makes to literary merit. The “Fox Index” is about “readability.” Why buy a book if you can’t make sense of it? Here’s Amazon’s explanation of the “Fog Index”:
The Fog Index…indicates the number of years of formal education required to read and understand a passage of text. A score between 7 and 8 is considered ideal, while a score above 12 is considered difficult to read.
War and Peace scores 13.2 on the Fog Index, while my book scores a much more approachable 9.3. My book is not quite “ideal,” but it is far more “ideal” than Tolstoy’s, which is way beyond “difficult to read.” 13.2 probably means War and Peace is impossible to read, as more traditional and empirical evidence suggests.
So you want a lot of words for the money? Line your bookshelves with Tolstoy, city phone books – that sort of thing. You want a short read, at once approachable and recondite? Be the fourth person to buy my book on Amazon.