What I learned about myself by going through 17 years of Amazon purchases

Matthew McKeever
May 30 · 13 min read

I read a lot of books. And I buy a lot of books. Logging into Amazon yesterday, I learn that I’ve been a member since 2002, and asked myself this question: does the 17 years of book purchases, available a couple of clicks away, say something about me? How well do I know myself, at least my book-buying self? Have my tastes changed? Did the books I read in any way reflect the political or economic situation in which I found myself?

We’re familiarly in an age of big data, that claims to know us better than we know ourselves, better than what introspection can tell us. Is there a room for medium-sized data, data about us small enough to analyse and look over and learn about ourselves from? This post is an exploration of this idea.

I made some guesses as what my purchase history would be like and then checked how good they were. Here I’ll present both.

What I guessed

In 2002, I turned 18, so I have been buying books from Amazon my whole adult life. I currently work in academic philosophy, a subject in which I have a PhD. So I predicted there’d be tons of philosophy books. My research was in language, and I’ve always been a keen language learner, so I predicted loads of language books. I am a literary type, so I figured a lot of canonical or classic texts.

I’ve changed in certain ways. The Germans distinguish between civilization and culture as two ways of understanding what human beings are like. The former is concerned, in part, with our social aspect — politics, economics, history. The latter is concerned with more private things — poetry, religion, some philosophy. I used to be strongly culture first, and drastically changed so that I am now strongly civilization first. That is to say, I used to think the important facts about a person were person, private, ineffable things; now I think, pretty much, they’re economic, political, and historical facts.

I estimate that I buy about 1/6ths of my books on Amazon. My original guess for how much I had spent on Amazon was £500.

In what follows, books marked with a star are ones I would recommend, in particular recommend to a general reader regardless of background. Sometimes I’ll recommend complicated analytic philosophy books if the ideas are cool; and I won’t recommend perfectly good textbooks if I don’t think the average person would benefit from them.

The Very First Book

On 26th May, 2002, I bought (1) Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. As a first title, it’s kind of underwhelming: a lurid and dark story of drugs and sex (as I recall — in this exercise I rely entirely on memory, so there might be some mistakes) with just enough literary bona fides that I wouldn’t have felt embarrassed reading it. Just the sort of thing for someone who wants to read Sartre but gets bored of him talking about history and going wild over trees’ roots.

Slightly more respectable was my second book, (2) Biblical Hebrew for Beginners, on 27th December 2002. Although not religious, I’ve always been very interested in religion, and, as mentioned before, in foreign languages. At this point I’d taught myself ancient Greek to some extent and I guess wanted to move from the koine Greek New Testament to the Hebrew old one. This book is pretty decent: I never got massively far in Hebrew, but this was a solid intro.

Note, incidentally, the date — just after Christmas. And the first book was just after my birthday. Amazon, for me then I guess, was a place to spend gift money.

2003–8

I bought nothing in either 2003 or 2004. I’m not sure why — I was abortively studying computer science at the time, although I spent most of my time reading poetry in the library so I’m not sure why it’s not reflected in my purchases.

On my birthday in 2005, I bought (3) Beginner’s Russian, thus beginning an on-off relationship with the language that continues to this day.

In 2006, I bought

(4) Biblical Hebrew (Teach Yourself)
(5) * Bilingual Duino Elegies by Rilke
(6) Bilingual Vikramorvasiyam of Kalidasa (n.b. I didn’t and don’t read Sanskrit)
(7) Baudelaire, A Critical Study, by John Paul Sartre
(8)* A Loeb Classical Library Reader
(9)The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
(10)*Bilingual Bhagadavgita
(11)Dante In English
(12)The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse
(13)The Cambridge Companion to Dante
(14)The Assault on Tony’s, John O’Brien
(15)A Commentary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
(16)The Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary
(17) Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings: A Selection

Whew! Most of these I read a decent amount. We see some philosophy for the first time, but very different from the logicy stuff I’d end up specializing in. The Rilke book meant a lot to me, and I was a very big fan of his, although I haven’t read him in probably literally a decade now.

In 2007:

(18)Japanese The Manga Way
(19)The Greek Philosophers, an anthology of preSocratics
(20)The Epistle to the Romans, John Barth
(21)Introduction To The Reading of Hegel, Kojeve

Another language. I spent a lot of time on Japanese but never got very far. And more religion — the Epistle to The Romans is a doughty classic of 20th century theology, but not one I ever got much out of.

2008

In the year when the economy was collapsing, I was in my second year of an analytic philosophy degree, and it shows:

(22) Universals, by J.P. Moreland
(23)*Six Easy Pieces, Feynman
(24)Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, A Reader’s Guide
(25)*Foundations of Arithmetic, Frege
(26)Breaking into Japanese Literature
(27)The Philosophy of History, Hegel
(28)*An Introduction to Goedel’s Theorems, Peter Smith
(29)Contemporary Philosophy of Thought

Foundations of Arithmetic is a, well, foundational text on analytic philosophy. The intro to Goedel’s theorems is very good. As is the Feynman.

2009

(30)Berkeley’s World, Tom Stoneham
(31)Modal Logic For Philosophers
(32)The Philosophy of Mathematics (Oxford Readings in Philosophy)
(33)Logical Investigations: v.1: Vol 1 (International Library of Philosophy), Edmund Husserl, et al
(24)Math for 3D Game Programming and Computer Graphics (Charles River Media Game Development (Hardcover)) Eric Lengyel
(25)Relativity Demystified David Mcmahon, Paul M. Alsing

I read depressingly few of these. The Stoneham book was great, the relativity book is wildly hard. The 3d programming indicates I guess that despite having dropped out of compsci I still wanted to know how Doom (or at least Wolfenstein) works, something that I do know now thanks to the internet.

2010

(26)Facing Facts, Stephen Neale
(27)*On the Plurality of Worlds, David Lewis
(28) Game Theory: A Nontechnical Introduction (Dover books on mathematics) Morton D. Davis
(29)The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being Daniel M. Haybron
(30) Sanskrit (Teach Yourself) Michael Coulson

Language makes a return among the philosophy! The Lewis book is a contemporary classic of analytic philosophy. The Haybron book is interesting. Facing Facts is a book on a very small argument in semantics that, for some reason, I spent months as an undergrad working on.

2011

This year I moved to Cambridge to do a masters in philosophy. My books boringly reflect this, consisting of classics:

(31)*Principia Mathematica, to 56, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell
(32)Frege’s Puzzle, Nathan Salmon
(33)Frege: Philosophy of Language, Michael Dummett
(34)Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Donald Davidson
(35)The Varieties of Reference (Clarendon Paperbacks), Gareth Evans, John McDowell
(36)Studies in the Way of Words, Paul Grice

The Evans book is very special to me: I’ve spent many many hours reading it, and it inspired me to do a PhD in language. Some other I bought, probably because they were cheap (or, in the first case, because I had to teach from it):

(37)An Introduction to Formal Logic, Peter Smith
(38)The Reason’s Proper Study: Essays towards a Neo-Fregean Philosophy of Mathematics, Bob Hale, Crispin Wright
(39)Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment: Reasoning, Representing and Discursive Commitment, Robert Brandom
(40)Meaning and Reference (Oxford Readings in Philosophy)
A. W. Moore
(41)The Nature and Structure of Content, Jeffrey C. King
(42)Foundations of Intensional Semantics, Chris Fox, Shalom Lappin
(43)Content and Modality: Themes from the Philosophy of Robert Stalnaker, Judith Thomson, Alex Byrne
(44)Donald Davidson’s Truth-Theoretic Semantics, Ernest Lepore, Kirk Ludwig

Thankfully at least there was some light relief:

(45)*Russian Stories (Dual-Language Books), Gleb Struve
(46)*I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan, Alan Partridge
(47)*Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays David Foster Wallace
(48) Brief Interviews with Hideous Men David Foster Wallace

If I was a big Rilke person in 2006, 5 years later I was obsessed with David Foster Wallace. I no longer am, but he is very influential for me as far as showing that one can approach pop culture with the mind of an analytic philosopher. Also, if you know who Alan Partridge is, READ THE BOOKS. They are great.

2012

(49)* Semantics in Generative Grammar (Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics)
Irene Heim, Angelika Kratzer

A modern classic, the central textbook for my discipline of formal semantics. In the spring in Cambridge, I wrote my dissertation on this book:

(50) The Reference Book, John Hawthorne, David Manley

Concentrating in particular on its analysis of indefinite descriptions (like ‘a wolf’). Exciting stuff (I’m being sarcastic although I genuinely did think so at the time).

Another classic:

(51)An Introduction to Modal Logic, George Edward Hughes, M.J. Cresswell

And a couple I got because they were cheap:

(52)Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism Robert B. Brandom
(53)Complex Demonstratives: A Quantificational Account (Contemporary Philosophical Monographs) Jeffrey C King

2013

In addition to the by now tedious analytic philosophy titles (although the Schroeder book is very interesting, and the Pietroski ended up featuring heavily in my PhD thesis):

(54)Being For: Evaluating the Semantic Program of Expressivism
Schroeder, Mark
(55)Direct Compositionality (Oxford Studies in Theoretical Linguistics)
Barker, Chris
(56)The Philosophy of Set Theory(Dover Books on Mathematics)
Tiles, Mary
(57)Quantification (Research Surveys in Linguistics), Szabolcsi, Anna
(58) Events and Semantic Architecture, Pietroski, Paul M.
(59) The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, Hughes, Rig

We have some interesting and beloved books:

(60) Both Flesh & Not, David Foster Wallace
(61)*Crime and Punishment (Dual-Language Book) (Russian Classics in Russian and English), Dostoyevsky, Fyodor
The New Life / La Vita Nuova: A Dual-Language Book (Dover Books on Language), Alighieri, Dante. Is this the first I forgot to number? Maybe.
(62)* Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, Pushkin, Alexander
(63)Russian Classics in Russian and English: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dual-Language Book)

I am a very big Pushkin fan, or more particularly a very big Eugene Onegin plan. I once formed a plan to make a Northern Ireland-themed translation called Gerry O’Naggin (‘naggin’ being an alcohol bottle size in Ireland) but didn’t follow through.

2014

(64)On What Matters: Volume One (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures), Parfit, Derek
(65)Writing the Book of the World, Sider, Theodore
(66)Constructing the World, Chalmers, David J.
(67)* Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis (Dover Books on Mathematics), Cohen, Paul J
(68)De rerum natura. With an English translation by W. H. D. Rouse (Loeb Classical Library.), Titus Lucretius Carus
(69)Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, Motion, Sir Andrew
(70)*Semantics: A Reader, Davis, Steven
Relativism and Monadic Truth, Cappelen, Herman
(71)*Russian Classics in Russian and English: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Volume 1) (Dual-Language Book), Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich

Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels; the Cohen book is a great old school intro to complicated logic. The Motion bio of Larkin is good too, and in Relativism and Monadic Truth, I finally buy a book by my PhD supervisor!

2015

Still the same interests: philosophy, languages-with-literature, physics that is beyond me:

(72) A Most Incomprehensible Thing: Notes Towards a Very Gentle Introduction to the Mathematics of Relativity, Peter Collier
(73) Frege — Philosophy of Mathematics, Dummett, Michael
(74)*Science without Numbers: A Defence of Nominalism (Library of Philosophy and Logic), Hartry H. Field
(75)Metaphysical Essays, Hawthorne, John
(76)Russian Classics in Russian and English: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Volume 2) (Dual-Language Book), Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich

(77)Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (Open Market Edition), Geyh, Paula
(78)Origins of Objectivity, Burge, Tyler

2016

(79)Best Short Stories / Die schoensten Erzaehlungen, Kafka, Franz
(80)Model Theory: Third Edition
Chang, Chen Chung
(81)A Naked Singularity, De La Pava, Sergio
(82)Persistence and Spacetime, Balashov, Yuri
(83)The New Penguin History of the World, Roberts, J M
(84)The David Foster Wallace Reader, Foster Wallace, David
(85)Fathers and Sons: Bilingual two-column edition: Volume 1 (Nineteenth Century Russian Classics), Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich
(86)Russian Classics in Russian and English: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (Dual-Language Book), Mikhail Lermontov
(87) A Vedic Reader for Students, Macdonell, Arthur Anthony
(88)A HISTORY OF MATHEMATICS (OPEN UNIVERSITY TITLE) Carl B.Boyer (why is this book title shouting? Idk)

Philosophy, Russian literature, postmodern American literature — it wouldn’t take a very smart bot to predict this list given what came before. The interesting exception is the history of the world. This was the year I got my PhD, and marked a turn towards civilization and away from culture.

2017

One year after my PhD, and philosophy is much less represented:

(89)*The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine, Petzold, Charles
(90) Saving Truth From Paradox, Field, Hartry

History and economics, however, are in in a big way:

The Roaring Nineties: Why We’re Paying the Price for the Greediest Decade in History. Stiglitz, Joseph
Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, Wapshott, Nicholas

Okay, I admit, I forgot to number these first time round, and don’t really want to renumber. So just forget about these — although they’re good books if you’re interested in the topic.

(91)*Eating Animals, Safran Foer, Jonathan

(92)*The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
Perlstein, Rick
(93)Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations,Krugman, Paul
(94) This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
Reinhart, Carmen M.
When China Rules The World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Jacques, Martin

Why the sudden turn outwards? My theory is that because I suddenly found myself on the job market, I suddenly took an interest in why everybody wasn’t rushing to throw money at me.

And a couple of novels which I started but didn’t finish:

(95)The Nix,Hill, Nathan
(96)Christodora, Murphy, Tim
(97)Mason and Dixon, Pynchon, Thomas

2018

This year brought some literary fiction, which I read to varying degrees (I loved Last Samurai):

(98)*The Last Samurai, DeWitt, Helen
(99)For We Are Young And Free: A short collection of experimental cyberpunk, Stoff, Maddison
(100)A Hypocritical Reader, Šnajdr, Rosie
(101) Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature
Waidner, Isabel

Some peripheral philosophy:

(102)Alfred Tarski: Life and Logic, Feferman, Anita Burdman
(103) One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness, Graham Priest
(104) Philosophy and Model Theory, Button, Tim, Sean Walsh

Some good, but uncategorizable work:

(105) Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk Bernstein, Peter L.
Special Relativity and Classical Field Theory (Theoretical Minimum 3)
Susskind, Leonard. Oops, forgot to number this one.
(106)Art of Language Invention, The David J. Peterson
(107)Make Your Own Neural Network, Tariq Rashid

And uniformly deec sci-fi:

(108) Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang, Ted
(109)Snow Crash, Stephenson, Neal
(110)*Permutation City, Egan, Greg
(111)The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth
Hanson, Robin
(112)BLINDSIGHT, Peter Watts
(113)The Three-Body Problem, Liu, Cixin
(114)The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Stewart, Ian

And 2019, so far:

(115)Everybody Lies, Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth
(116) The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Skowronek, Stephen
(117) The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders
(118) God, Actually: Why God Probably Exists, Why Jesus Was Probably Divine and Why the ‘Rational’ Objections to Religion are Unconvincing, Williams, Roy

(119)*Mastering Bitcoin 2e, Antonopoulos, Andreas
(120) Neptune’s Brood (Freyaverse), Stross, Charles

And yet to be delivered, the very final book:

(121)Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, Peter Marshall

What To Make Of This?

This isn’t even all of them. I can think of at least five books not on this list (most notably Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky bio, which would most definitely get a star) that, for reasons I’m not sure of, I didn’t see on the site. But it’s good enough to get started. Remember my guess that I spent £500? Well, I think, if we assume an average price of £12 (because philosophy books are expensive, but on the other hand I buy loads of penny books), I spent about £1,500. And I guessed that this amounts to 1/6th of my books, so my total number of books would be ~720. I’m not sure if this is accurate: it seems okay, though. Most of the other books were bought at charity shops, where we can probably assume a £4 average, so let’s say another £2,500.

Honestly, £4,000, which comes to £20 a month, doesn’t seem so bad given how important books are in my life. I would say it’s excessive, but not ruinously so.

What about content? An interesting pattern is — given I’m not religious — the persistence of religion. I started with biblical Hebrew, and I’ve recently been reading again about the historical Jesus (which everybody should do, because it’s fascinating). The sudden growth of sci-fi is interesting — as an irritating angsty teen, I would have looked down at what is my favourite sort of thing to read now. The fall in language learning materials is probably owing to the fact that I’ve got resources for all the languages I anticipate wanting to continue with. I’m surprised, although not really in retrospect, by my passion for Russian literature, but in general I doesn’t seem like I’m such a big literature type. I’m more of a nerd, less artistic, than I thought, maybe (no shit, you say, seeing the most recent starred book is a textbook on Bitcoin).

My prediction that I made a big change from being inward turning to not being so didn’t come out — I expected much more poetry early, and much more economics and politics later, and although it’s suggestive that my first book was a sort of pseudo-deep kind of trashy novel while my last is a history of anarchism, it’s no more than that. I’m tempted to conclude that my image of myself as a man of civilization, as opposed to a man of culture, might be a slight misperception.

In sum, I learned some things, and it was an interesting experience that I recommend others with the taste for looking at oneself from unusual angles try out.

Matthew McKeever

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Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books. Academic philosophy papers at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/, free book about 90s & now at http://bit.ly/90sbook