Much attention is being paid to the digital books that may, in time, revolutionize how we read books. Of even more revolutionary importance right now are not so much the e-books as the e-bookshelves. These are the new social networking sites that make it possible for readers to create rich virtual representations of the books on their physical shelves. I am so captivated with the power of these sites, I simply must share the good news with the Well-Read Life community.
I’ll focus on Shelfari.com, since I’m most familiar with it, but others offer similar functionality, and I’ll link to some at the end of this post.
Let’s put the social capabilities of these sites aside until later in the post, and focus first on just what the software and you can do together to magnify the enjoyment you reap from your books.
Get rich quick
Here’s how it works: You type the titles of your favorite books into the search box and the software finds your books almost instantly. You can click on the edition you own (or on the one with the prettiest cover, as I often do), and up it pops onto your digital wooden bookshelf.
Then you can rate it, flag it as one of your all-time favorites (a heart appears on the book), and write a review (which you can edit as often as you like). And you can tag it, which means you can add any number of labels. You can use the tags the software suggests—such as biography, historical-fiction, women’s studies. You can also make up your own labels—for example, Orchids In Literature, Musician Memoirs, Irish Immigrant Experiences. (More on the surprising benefits of tagging in a moment.)
You’ll quickly see your e-bookcase fill up with your cherished books. You can display them in any number of ways—many on your screen at once, or fewer so you can read the subtitles and enjoy the cover art. You can sort them by author, title, date added, or by a custom way that you create. Mouse over any book to add to your review, change your ratings or add tags.
Let me say I’m not a techie. I’m more at home with fountain pens and paper than computers. But this is easy stuff.
On tag cloud nine
If you believe, as I do, that one of the most rewarding parts of leading your well-read life is living with the books you’ve read, this kind of software is the greatest thing since bookcases. Consider:
If you actually keep all the books you’ve read (which requires not only the money to buy rather than borrow them, but also the space to store them), you’re already in a minority of lucky readers. Further, if you then organize your library in some manner, you’re way ahead of most bibliophiles. Most of us intend to organize our library as we intend to organize our photos.
But even if you are in that enviable minority who actually keep and organize their books, you can only do so in one way—for instance, by author or by subject, but not both. With Shelfari, you can quickly sort your library as magically as Mary Poppins tidies up the nursery. And here’s where tags come in. Be liberal when tagging your books and see how the software automatically creates your tag cloud. Here’s what mine looks like:
While I knew I liked histories of big engineering projects, I was startled to discover just how prominent history of technology is for me, and also memoirs, even more than biographies. Standard tags such as literature loom large, but there are also peculiar tags I invented, like Sociology of Reading, Maybe Later (which I use for books I’ve stopped reading but may want to get back to) and, of course, Boovie, for those book/movie combos we’ve been discussing in this forum. Click on any of your tags and all those books are shown together.
Your tag cloud will lead to discoveries about your own bookography and make it easy to see what matters to you. In some ways, your tag cloud may be more revealing about yourself and your interests than a personal journal. It’s a kind of book DNA.
Sorting and sifting through your library with these tools may spur you to read more in a particular realm. Let’s say, for example, that some of your highest rated books are in poetry, yet you haven’t read that much poetry. Or perhaps an author of a book you adored has more recent books you’ll want to try—a few clicks and you can see what they are. Shelfari acts like a stethoscope, letting you hear your own book beat.
Go ahead and leave home without it
Your home library of physical books can be a source of great comfort and joy—when you’re home. But what about when you travel? Wouldn’t it be nice to have your cherished library come along? It can now. As long as you have a Web connection, which is almost anywhere you’re likely to travel, you can see and cultivate your garden of books.
Some readers have told me they keep a list of books they want to read, yet have been frustrated when they have found themselves in a bookstore without their list. With the Shelfari mobile phone link, your lists can go with you. I just tried this feature and quickly called up my “Plan-to-Read” books on my Blackberry. (Again, I am not a tech guy.)
Other readers I’ve interviewed tell me they enjoy re-reading their favorite books every so often, or even yearly. Shelfari has a new feature that makes it very easy—fun, actually—to key in each time you’ve read a book. I just clicked on my Old Man and the Sea and put my high school read date together with my second reading last year. Next I’ll write a short review of what that re-read a generation later was like.
Am I going to abandon my real library at home? Banish the thought! Besides dearly loving the feeling of my books around me, of huge value to me are my handwritten notes, underlining, and marginalia in my own copies. Even though the new batch of e-books offers annotation—complete with voice recording—my guess is that it will be a while before digital books can best what we do today so well with our human digits on old-fashioned paper.
Sharing the wealth: virtual book clubs on demand
Now, to the social-networking aspect of these sites. You can enjoy the benefits of sharing with other readers, passively or actively, just a little or a lot—it’s completely up to you.
When you add one of your books to your shelf, Shelfari shows you a number that indicates how many other people in the network have also put that particular book on their shelves. When I last checked, 487 readers had Dava Sobel’s Longitude on their shelves. You also see that 23 reviews have been written. You can read and respond to these reviews and join in the discussion of your favorite books, essentially having a book club discussion anytime you want on any of your books. Shelfari will let you know about recent discussions of books on your shelf.
Invite your friends and family to see what you’re reading and what you think about the books. When you look at their shelves, the books you share in common are marked with green bookmarks. This kind of sharing has gone on since before the Brontë sisters were reading, but Shelfari and other book social network sites make this communication disarmingly easy. Shelfari will even show you which other people share the most books with you.
Lynne Ittleman, an avid reader, moved from the metropolitan Miami area to a small town in Central Florida several years ago. She finds that Shelfari gives her a needed connection to other readers.
“When I read a good book, it’s difficult to find anyone with whom to discuss it. So I check some shelves and see what people are reading. It’s a sort of interactive book clubbing. I’m not a joiner, but this has filled a need.”
A virtual virtuous circle
Books, as Barbara Tuchman said, are the carriers of civilization—they are the currency of thought and perhaps our most important stimulus of thoughtful action. To be able to explore your own library with such digital tools can lead to greater self-knowledge, to greater sharing, to more effective action, and to more directed reading in that virtuous circle of a well-read life.
Shelfari is ad-supported, so you have to put up with a few banners, which at present aren’t bad. Amazon is an investor in the company, and Shelfari makes money as an Amazon affiliate if you click through and buy your books that way.
I joined Shelfari last fall and have seen new features coming live at a fast clip, so who knows what new goodies the Shelfari folks will add in coming months and years. But the revolutionary power is already free for the taking, and it feels like a killer app to me—like when spreadsheets from Lotus 1-2-3 revolutionized how we work with numbers.
Apparently, I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. According to Dave Hanley, vice president of marketing at Shelfari, membership in the last year has grown from 15,000 to 1.5 million.
Since Shelfari and the other social networking sites for books are so new, we don’t yet know where they will take us, but it seems to me they are another good reason why we are now entering the Golden Age of the Book.
And please accept my invitation to see my virtual library by clicking on this link: (You will have to register, but it’s easy and free.)
Other book social network sites you may want to explore:
Visual Bookshelf (on Facebook)