Monday, July 09, 2007

Bibliomania on the Net

I've always loved books.

Well, at least since the summer between the 2nd and 3rd grade, when the church where I attended Vacation Bible School had a lending library for kids, and I began checking out a series of biographies of famous people written for children. I remember sitting on our porch and reading on hot North Carolina summer days, and I recall the triumph I felt when finishing book and starting another. While I don't remember what I read, I do remember the orange-colored binding of the book series and the feeling that nothing equaled the pleasure of exploring worlds in my head. I was hooked. When I was 12 I discovered science fiction, and during that summer I lay in a hammock outside our house in Atlanta and read through the output of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

I loved both the worlds of books and the tangible feel of a book, its musty smell, and the thrill of turning a page over to find out what happened next. When Vacation Bible School was over, I learned about public libraries where thousands of multi-colored books lined floor-to-ceiling shelves, and whatever I wanted could be purchased for free with a library card. As I grew up and went out into the world, I used books to guide my path. But it wasn't until the paperback revolution that I could buy many of my own. I recall visiting Hollywood's Unicorn coffee house on Sunset Boulevard in the late 1950s and discovering on the second floor a paperback book store run by a dropout from the University of Chicago. What a wealth of riches! A candy store for budding intellectuals! At the Unicorn I heard a monk explain Buddhism to the crowd gather around their cappuccinos and I began to build my first collection with volumes from the upstairs store. I still can see the covers of newly published paperbacks by Alan Watts, Allen Ginsburg and Carl Jung.

During my years on this earthly plane of existence, I have purchased, or traded for, many thousands of books, both hardbacks and soft covers, coffee table volumes, and small books for the pocket. I'd hesitate to name the number. But I have also traveled widely and often moved my abode, each time forced to decide what books to give up and what to keep. At times I have gotten rid of everything to savor the clean sweet feel of renunciation. Other times I have clung to a few favorites. When I left the music business in Southern California, I took with me only what would fit in my small Volkswagen (always choosing books and records over room for clothes and other possessions). When I finished with the university, I distributed many cartons to friends and to used book stores for trade. And when my marriage ended, I had to give up a book-lined study for a succession of small rooms where my big collection could not fit. This time, as I prepare for a major move to Southeast Asia, I have nearly cleaned out my shelves.

And then I discovered LibraryThing.

What a life saver! Just when I have to give up almost all my current books, along comes LibraryThing which makes it possible not only to preserve it all but to recreate a library with every book I've ever owned. Virtually, that is. Wikipedia, which knows everything, describes LibraryThing as "a web application for storing and sharing personal library catalogs and book lists, a prominent social cataloging application." But that's like calling a Hummer an SUV. There is much more to it.

LibraryThing (dontcha just love that name?) was started by Tim Spalding, a web site developer in Portland, Maine, and went online almost two years ago. It enables you to input and catalog a book list with help from and/or a list over 75 libraries world-wide. With a free account, you can catalog 200 books. For $10 a year you can catalog an unlimited number. A lifetime membership (which I immediately bought, after figuring out what it could do) is only $25. Although the program is still in beta mode, over 227,000 people have signed up (they call themselves "thingamabrarians") and 16 million books have been cataloged. Within a year it will have the largest library catalog in the world. What is really cool about it is that cover photos are available for most books, from Amazon from individual members. The selection is mind-boggling. I have tried, with much success, to catalog books read 30-40 years ago with their original covers. And if it is hard to remember, you can browse through the libraries of other members to jog your memory. LibraryThing is better than sliced bread, and almost as good as sex.

While not a dating site, it is possible to admire the collections of others and send them fan mail. You can suggest or respond to a talk topic, or join a book group, of which there seem to be many hundreds. It's kind of like a My Space for intellectuals and readers. Many of the library members keep a low profile, but some, like yours truly, stick their photo up, have links to blogs and photo sites, and post their email address. Some of us are not so paranoid as the rest of you worry-warts.

And you can add a link to your blog. If you look to the right on this page, you'll see some random book titles and covers from my collection, just below the Flick photo link. But if you want to go straight to my profile and virtual catalog, click here.

Of course, all of this brings up the question of the future of books, the tangible things made out of paper, cardboard and ink, that take up space on shelves and grow moldy from dampness. Used books when opened present a time-span of smells. Perhaps ghosts of the writer and long-dead readers hide inside. I like to think so. I'm a physical reader and while I was a student got used to underlining my books, writing notes in the margin, putting explanation points where the words hit home, and writing "ugh" next to passages that make my blood boil. This of course makes such mangled books difficult to sell or trade. I have unloaded boxes of such casualties outside the local Goodwill, hoping that someone will appreciate my written assistance in the pages.

I have seen the future of electronic books and I don't like it. Digital readers like the one made by Sony are clunky and cumbersome. I rarely read articles on the net, but prefer to print them out and cover them with ink marks as I read and digest. Certainly the generations that follow mine are less interested in reading. I was very disappointed in the students I taught a half dozen years ago who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the books I assigned. Almost none read newspapers. If they got their news, it was from TV cable news shows which, when I sometimes am forced to view them, are pretty poor. Go into a bookstore and look for young people, see what they are reading. Actually, LibraryThing compiles statistics and who do you think are the favorite writers of the folks participating? J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, naturally. And these are readers, people who read words to explore worlds in their mind, and they are a small percentage of the world's population.

My favorite books and authors, which I of course think are more worthy, are well down the list.

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