13 June 2008

LibraryThing is my excuse

I was writing this great post about LibraryThing, an online book cataloging service, when the cable on my computer came loose and the power failed. Now I’ve lost it, and it’s near impossible to get back into re-writing something that just vanished. The willpower goes away, futility seeps in. You know what I’m talking about: you lost an important college paper to a computer crash once too. You know you did, even if you’ve blacked it out of your memory. And if you went to college before the computer revolution, you know your roommate vomited all over your only copy of your important Early Modern Europe term paper. Or something like that. Sorry, but I really can’t envision “data crashes” from the pre-Apple II+/PC era. Child of the Motherboard, I’m sorry. (I still cannot believe that the great pulp writers banged out their stories at a furious pace on Underwoods and Smith-Corollas, completely unable to revise without extensive re-typing. Those boys and girls and Street & Smith days were superhuman, I tell you. Giants walked the Earth.)

Uh, what was talking about? Oh yeah, a lost post. Sigh, I need to re-type it, or maybe I’ll take a different approach to the same material to make it feel fresh to me. I realize this means nothing to you, but when I look back over these posts months later, I like to remember just what the hell it was I was thinking when I set fingers to keyboard.

The original excuse for the vanished post was an excuse: Sorry I haven’t posted much this month. For you see, I’ve been writing a lot. Good work, some of it draft, much of it extensive notes and ideas. But really, my Internet posting dropped because the free time I usually give over to composing long rambles was eaten up by this gorgeous monster called LibraryThing. It started two weekends ago, when I was chatting with a woman in my local bookstore. She was in town for a publishers’ meeting, and she informed me of the wonderful service that LibraryThing provides to bibliophiles. So I looked up the URL, tried it . . . and there went my free time for the next fortnight.

A true bibliophile finds the cataloging of his/her books an ecstatic experience. My physical library is disorganized (although not really messy) since it has to inhabit a small apartment. The books seek out space on the shelves/tabletops/floor wherever they can can fit. Larger organization is impossible, only micro categorizing, such as keeping all my Woolrich books in one area. But plugging the volumes into LibraryThing gives me a virtual shelf where I can choose to re-order my books at a whim and see them lined up according to whatever principle I need at the time. All the science-fiction books I own that I haven’t read? Two clicks of the mouse. And of those books, which are the most recent I purchased? Another click. How about books that won the Hugo Award? And so on . . . the “tag” function is wonderful.

LibraryThing is also a social networking site. I don’t have much interest in the forums—I don’t participate much in forums in general—but the ability to see other people’s libraries that are amazingly similar to mine offers up a new world of possible reading suggestions. There are many ways to get automated suggestions. The “Recommendations” lists pulls up the books most likely to appear in other people’s libraries similar to yours, and you can click on an individual books and see what other volumes owners of that book most frequently share. Users can also make specific suggestions tied to a book. Only a few minutes on LibraryThing, and I was already scribbling down a shopping list for my next trip to the bookstore.

Finally, there’s humor to found in these virtual stacks. Using the “UnSuggester,” which reverses the algorithm that offers recommendations to show the books least likely to appear in libraries similar to yours, you can find the sort of books you know you’ll never read. The comparisons are often hysterical. LibraryThing’s best example, posted as a sidebar: “Like The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant? Then you won’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella.” Yeah, no doubt. (I don’t own The Critique of Pure Reason, but I read it for a high school class. Didn’t like it. But I’m certain I wouldn’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic, since many other Sophie Kinsella books pop up on my personal “UnSuggester.” My top “unsuggested” book right now is Shopaholic Ties the Knot by Kinsella, followed by Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge. A wise algorithm, this UnSuggester.)

Hey, I think this blog post came out better the second time! The joy of revising fresh…