Sunday, December 31, 2006

LibraryThing proves that I am a nerd

I occasionally read the Chief Blogging Officer blog and find interesting things. One such was LibraryThing which happened to hit on a day in which I had a bunch of free time, my wife was out of the house buying maternity clothes (do you like how I dropped that blog-bomb so casually?), and I was feeling vaguely guilty that I hadn't blogged in so long. I thus decided to enter the readily accessible contents of my office bookshelf into LibraryThing and blog about it.

Now it can be told: I am a huge science fiction nerd. Basically, all I ever buy or read is science fiction. I have certain rules that I rarely break -- fantasy novels with elves, warriors, wizards, fairies, magic, etc. are cheesy and bad, and multi-volume series are generally bad (a rule I have broken with Gibson's two cycles, Neil Stephenson's excellent Baroque cycle, and now some Greg Bear and Jack McDevitt stuff I've read recently). But generally, if it is sci-fi and it is not too ham-handedly written, I am probably going to enjoy it. The weird thing is that, except for the NY Times which I read every morning, I only read when I travel and for the most part it's only when I'm on vacation. When I'm on vacation I will read like six science fiction novels. Then they go in the "nerd bookcase" so my wife's much higher-brow collection is not sullied by nerdy books. I ought to make a LibraryThing profile for her but I think my blog readers will wonder why we ever got together and decided to procreate. (Update: she posted her library) Also, they only let you store 200 books for free, and then they charge you. A pittance, but still.

Anyway, since this blog is primarily about what a nerd I am, let me describe the process of entering my 127 books into LibraryThing. I chose to enter only ISBN numbers so that my "actual" collection could be filed. Since I buy a lot of books when I travel, I found that British editions of my books were sometimes hard to find; for those, the best source was usually the National Library of Scotland. Mostly Amazon finds everything, including science fiction from the 60s and 70s which makes up the oldest part of my collection. However, with about every 10th book, I received an "HTTP/1.1 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable" error which I believe was coming from Amazon when I tried to add a book I'd found. I could always go back and then add the book again, but it did add a "blank" book to my list which I would have to manually delete.

After using the system a lot, I also found that sometimes a search against Amazon would not return a result at first; you have to search again. I suppose this was due to reliability of the API Amazon presents rather than a problem with LibraryThing, which is sort of an interesting comment on the reliability of "Web 2.0" services or "mash-ups" as you Web 2.0 kids like to call 'em. The mere fact that I just typed "Web 2.0" makes me want to punch myself. Anyway.

So, now that I entered all 127 of my books, what can I do now? I usually hate tagging things (although I will do it on Flickr for public vacation photos and whatnot) but I decided, what the hell, it will be an easy way to see just what percentage of my collection is science-fiction. (79%) The double-click-to-tag mode is nice, but not with multiple items -- click the "PowerEdit" button to tag multiple items. An easy way to find untagged books so that you could quickly tag them is just to sort by "Tag" in either the PowerEdit or regular mode and then just edit the tags. Later I found that tags chosen in the "Add Book" search screen will be persistent throughout multiple searches and adds, so if you have a bunch of, say, science fiction, you can just choose your tag and add everything.

I also wanted to see which of my books were most popular, which was easy to do by sorting on "Shared". The top 10 were:

  1. Freakonomics, Levitt/Dubner
  2. Neuromancer, Gibson
  3. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss
  4. The Diamond Age, Stephenson
  5. Blade Runner, P.K. Dick
  6. Getting Things Done, Allen
  7. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Miller
  8. Idoru, Gibson
  9. Mona Lisa Overdrive, Gibson
  10. Count Zero, Gibson

    (I hyperlinked them since book titles should be underlined, but the web has taught you that underlined words link you elsewhere. And maybe it will improve my Technorati ranking from 1,145,645 to something higher.)

    Interesting. The most popular book is part of my minority of non-science-fiction books. And the most popular books that I own would seem to be those of William Gibson. To see how this compared to the LibraryThing world at large, I delved into the top 75 authors section of their Zeitgeist page, which is kind of cool. J.K. Rowling is the most popular author by far, which is not that surprising given that the first 6 most-popular books are Harry Potter books. (I have to say that, even though I was given the first three of that series in hardback, I have never read them.) Gibson appears at #45 on the list and Levitt does not appear. Like with Rowling, this is a function of Levitt only having written a single popular book versus Gibson's many books. Neil Stephenson is at #26.

    I also doubt this is a truly representative sample of readers / book-buyers given that it consists of people who've entered their own books into one of several web sites. (A very brief look at Freakonomics on Shelfari to try and figure out where it stood versus LibraryThing showed that Shelfari only had 30 people who owned it (couldn't figure out its ranking) whereas on LibraryThing 2988 people owned it (making it the 52nd most popular book). I then compared Neuromancer to find that on Shelfari 30 people owned it while on LibraryThing 2736 people own it (making it 65th most popular). I think Shelfari either doesn't show the number of people owning a particular book properly, or it is not a very popular site.

    A comment on the Chief Blogging Officer post suggested checking out BookTribes. I did the same search as above and found that it showed neither the number of readers nor the rank of the books for either Freakonomics (for which it had three hits, one with the wrong author) or Neuromancer. So BookTribes is less functional even than Shelfari, and probably has a smaller community as well.

    Another thing you can do with your LibraryThing collection is get suggestions (as well as the cute but useless concept of UnSuggestions). This I know is not rocket science but is something my wife was searching for (as previously mentioned, she is far more literate than I) and thus I hope to be able to "friend" her soon and maybe it will reduce my nerd ranking to be paired with such a sophisticated lady. Uh, anyway, doing a "People with your books also have: fiction" search netted a number of books that I actually own but did not put down. In fact, of the 100 in this search, I actually owned 9 of them, and have read another 10.

    To change it up a bit, I went to the living room bookshelves and added another 60 books (focusing on "my" books and those I had read rather than my wife's collection). This added some new books to my top 10 most popular (shown in bold below):

  1. Freakonomics, Levitt/Dubner
  2. Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris
  3. Neuromancer, Gibson
  4. Cryptonomicon, Stephenson
  5. Snow Crash, Stephenson
  6. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss
  7. Quicksilver, Stephenson
  8. The Diamond Age, Stephenson
  9. Blade Runner, P.K. Dick
  10. So, half of what was out in the living room was the more popular stuff. Also, the Neil Stephenson books I own are more popular than those of William Gibson, as 4 Stephenson books are now in "my" top 10 and only one Gibson book.

    Now that I've really updated my book collection to include everything that is really "mine" but is not hidden back here in the nerd zone, the percentage that is sci-fi drops to 66%. However, very few of the recommendations are from outside of SF, so it's like LibraryThing knows what I like even if I try to get all fancy on it. I do appreciate the "omit authors already in your collection" (as did my wife) as I have tended to glom onto SF authors and read all their books, so when I visit bookstores I just go straight to the S (Sterling/Stephenson) and B (Bear & Benford) sections. Anyway, new SF authors are more valuable to me than knowing that one of my favorites has written something new or that a certain bookstore has something that I had been searching for. (By the way, I once did a search for Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean on, was unsuccessful, but added it to my wish list. More than a year later, I got an email that it had located the book. It was like a nice surprise from the past. Thinking about it, I just did the same with paperback editions of Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan and James Othmer's The Futurist which I saw in a bookstore recently but didn't feel was worth paying hardcover prices.) The main new author in my recommendations with whom I don't have previous ambivalent associations seems to be China Mieville. I in fact placed an order on ($5.25) for Perdido Street Station which seemed to be the most popular. (Although I have to say that this guy's review and the subsequent comment made me laugh out loud.) I would have liked to support LibraryThing in some minimal way by buying using their Amazon link but was $2 cheaper and Amazon got enough of my money at Christmas time.

    Anyway, sorry this is such a departure from what I usually blog about, but I figured that this might be a little more accessible to my librarian readership demographic (even though they will make fun of me for the crap contained in my library, and also may realize that I have Thumbsucker and Masters of Atlantis on a "long-term loan" to use a librarian term). And also it fills the one-blog-entry-per-month-or-so quota I have set for myself.


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