Amazon Re-Ranks Intellectuals

Fun and games with its new text-search feature.’s new “Search Inside the Book” feature is the greatest literary time-waster since Sir Hugh Beaver, then managing director of the Guinness brewery, decided to commission an annual book of world records. In effect, Amazon has Google-ized its search engine for books, allowing users to search for key phrases in 33 million pages from 120,000 books published by 190 publishers. (For more about the new search engine, see this Slate piece by Steven Johnson.) It’s far from complete, of course; some publishers refuse to participate, and those who do tend to hold back newly released books. But it will certainly do for now.

One game you can play with Amazon’s search-inside feature is “Who gets more citations?” Richard Posner got pilloried for playing it in his book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, even though Chatterbox found the exercise enlightening. (To read why, click here, here, and here.) In order to make generalizations about public intellectuals, Posner had to compile an admittedly incomplete list of them matched to the number of times they were mentioned or quoted in the media. (To see Posner’s list, click here.) Inevitably, Posner compiled a Top 10. Here they are:

Henry Kissinger (12,570 media mentions between 1995 and 2000)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (12,344)
George Will (10,425)
Lawrence Summers (9,369)
William J. Bennett (9,070)
Robert Reich (8,795)
Sidney Blumenthal (8,044)
Arthur Miller—the law professor, not the playwright—(7,955)
Salman Rushdie (7,688)
William Safire (6,408)

Chatterbox wondered how the rankings might change if we counted citations in books—or rather, Amazon’s admittedly incomplete inventory. Before doing so, Chatterbox weeded out those intellectuals who were known mainly for working in government, on the theory that these folks were usually quoted not because of their brilliance but because of their proximity to power. Here’s the revised Posner media-citations list:

George Will (10,425 media mentions between 1995 and 2000)
Arthur Miller—the law professor, not the playwright—(7,955)
Salman Rushdie (7,688)
William Safire (6,408) (Note: Safire’s fame as a Nixon speechwriter got him his New York Times column three decades ago, but most people today know him as a columnist, not as a former government official.)
George Orwell (5,818)
Alan Dershowitz (5,778)
Toni Morrison (5,633)
Tom Wolfe (5,342)
Norman Mailer (4,860)
George Bernard Shaw (4,835)

Chatterbox next eliminated from this list Arthur Miller, on the grounds that it was way too labor-intensive to go through all 1,891 citations and separate out those for Miller the law professor. (Most of the citations appear to be for Miller the playwright.) He also eliminated Tom Wolfe to avoid untangling Tom Wolfe the journalist from Thomas Wolfe the author of Look Homeward, Angel and a third Tom Wolfe who writes woodworking books. Chatterbox left George Will in, but should warn readers that his citation count is inflated by more than a few false friends. (Example: “My George will love this one,” from Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book, HowTo Win Friends and Influence People.)

Here, then, is an Amazon re-jiggering of Posner’s list of most-cited intellectuals (excluding Arthur Miller, Tom Wolfe, and government officials), ranked this time according to citations in books:

George Bernard Shaw (3,449 hits using Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature)
George Orwell (3,271 hits)
Toni Morrison (2,148 hits)
Salman Rushdie (1,991 hits)
Norman Mailer (1,826 hits)
George Will (1,036 hits)
William Safire (652 hits)
Alan Dershowitz (296 hits)

As you can see, these book rankings are entirely different from Posner’s media rankings, tending to promote literary folk over political ones. And remember, this is only a comparative list using people who scored well on Posner’s survey. It doesn’t include big leaguers like Karl Marx (7,915 hits), Samuel Johnson (6,170, if you also include hits for “Dr. Johnson”), Michel Foucault (5,360 hits), and William Shakespeare (4,883 hits). Deities score especially high: The somewhat generic word “God” gets 94,190 hits, while Jesus Christ scores 23,016 and Buddha yields 11,074. But not all deities light up the big board. Allah scores a disappointing 5,751 *, and Vishnu comes in with a humiliating 1,869, which is slightly more than Norman Mailer and slightly less than Salman Rushdie. These findings are heavily skewed, of course, by the fact that most of the books in Amazon’s 120,000-volume database are in English.

With false friends weeded out, Chatterbox, aka “Timothy Noah” or “Tim Noah,” scored 30 hits, establishing that he does not number among the present era’s intellectual giants. Chatterbox is particularly surprised to discover that he is quoted in Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces. Regrettably, it’s for something that was actually said by someone else.

Correction, Oct. 28, 2003: An earlier version of this piece cited the Amazon count for Mohammed. That was incorrect in this context, because Mohammed is not a deity, but a prophet. (Mohammed, incidentally, scores a similarly disappointing 6,737, a figure that’s probably inflated by textual references to other people besides the prophet who are named “Mohammed.”) Return to the corrected sentence.